Archive | November, 2021

OUT NOW – Standing Alone (Cast Adrift II)

26 Nov

Five years ago, the human race became independent as the Alphan Empire conceded it could no longer sustain its grip on Earth and withdrew, casting an unprepared humanity adrift on an interstellar sea of troubles.  Since then, humanity has struggled mightily to secure its position in a galaxy full of hungry predators, many of whom see Earth as nothing more than a prize to be won.

Now, one of the galaxy’s superpowers has set its sights on Earth, launching a covert campaign to weaken and isolate the human race before it moves in for the kill.  As their plan comes into the open, and the scale of the threat becomes apparent, the human race finds itself caught between a war it cannot win and shameful submission to a dangerously inhuman race …

… And if Earth loses the war, humanity’s short-lived independence will come to an end once again.



Snippet – The Stranded – Experimental Story, ASB near-AH

26 Nov

Hi, everyone

The Stranded is something of an experiment – the basic idea is that a trio of magic kids in another universe (I thought about turning this into a Schooled in Magic spin-off, but decided against it) accidentally messed up a spell and found themselves unexpectedly transported to our world instead.  As they struggle to adapt to the strange new (old) world, they draw attention from some very dangerous forces lurking in the shadows…

All comments are welcome; spelling, grammar, continuity problems, moments of dunderheadedness, etc.  (This is at least partly intended for YA readers, so please keep that in mind.)

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Thank you


Prologue: England, 1524

The Sacred Grove felt … dead.

Anne shivered, despite herself, as she reached the edge of the clearing and peered towards the sacred stone.  The air was warm, yet cold and devoid of life.  Moonlit speared down from high overhead, casting the scene into sharp relief.  There should have been magic dancing in the air, as she’d seen when she’d been a little girl visiting a shrine for the first time, but instead the air felt barren.  Something tore at her heart as she stood and watched, tears prickling at the corner of her eyes.  The prophecies and prognosticates and everything else insisted that this was the last chance, that if she – and she alone – wasn’t in the clearing when the moon reached its zenith their world would be doomed, but what if it was already too late?  What if …?

She shuddered.  Her grandmother had known magics, magics the world hadn’t seen for decades.  Her great-grandmother had known magics beyond her daughter’s dreams.  Her … their world was dying.  The magic was slipping away.  And Anne was here, alone, in a desperate gamble to save a world that might already be dead.  Once, the shine had known magic, like the hundreds of others scattered over England that had pulsed with light and life and everything else that had given the folk meaning.  Now, it might be the only shine left open to them.  And …

Anne took a breath, then shrugged off her dress.  Skyclad, she stepped across the circle and into the clearing.  The world seemed to hold its breath as the moonlight illuminated her.  She hoped, praying to all the gods of her ancestors, she wasn’t imagining it.  The magic grew harder with every passing month, the spells she’d been taught only a few short years ago no longer workable, even by the strongest of the folk.  And the burners were coming for them, as the prophecies foretold.  Their world was doomed.  They were doomed.

She pressed her fingers against the sacred stone, feeling something tingling against her bare skin.  Magic?  She closed her eyes, muttering words she’d been forced to memorise in preparation for this night.  The old women had drilled her time and time again, insisting it had to be absolutely perfect.  They couldn’t afford a mistake.  And yet, doubt assailed her as she finished her chant.  It was hard to believe anyone was listening.  The days when the folk had been able to call on the power of nature itself, to heal and to harm in harmony with the world, were gone.  The universe was growing barren.  The wonders her grandmother had known were gone.

Anne slumped against the stone, her thoughts churning as despair threatened to overwhelm her.  She’d failed.  No one had answered her call.  Tears dripped from her eyes, splashing on the stone.  She’d have to go home and tell the old women it was over and … and what?  She didn’t know.  It was the end …

… And then the world shifted around her.

A flash of alarm nearly brought her to her feet.  Someone – something – was behind her.  It was standing so close she could feel its breath on the back of her neck.  She wanted to stand up, to turn and face the being she’d summoned … the being she felt, now, had been there all along.  And yet, her legs refused to move.  She couldn’t even turn her head.  She nearly panicked, despite everything she’d been taught.  The being felt more … real than the world around her, as if it was the light and she the shadow.  It was hard, so hard, to keep herself calm.

“You could not gaze upon my face,” a voice said.  It was male and female, young and old, airily light and deadly serious … a chorus that echoed through the air and beat against Anne’s mind.  “And yet, you call upon me?”

Anne swallowed, fear washing down her spine.  The Good Folk were gone.  She’d called something worse, far worse.  And yet, they needed help.

“Great One.”  Anne’s mouth felt dry, yet she dared not stop.  “We need your help.  We beg for your aid.”

“This world is turning away from the light,” the being said.  It spoke dispassionately, as if it cared nothing for the destruction of Anne’s entire world.  “The magic is fading.”

“Yes.”  Anne wanted to scream.  “We need your help.”

She couldn’t see the being, but she could feel the cruel smile behind her.  “And if I give you my aid,” it said, “what will you offer me in return?”

Anne gritted her teeth.  She’d been cautioned there was no hope of sympathy, let alone goodwill, from beings so inhuman they were dangerously unpredictable.  It wouldn’t help the folk out of the kindness of its heart.  It didn’t have a heart.  But it would bargain.  Perhaps.  It was the only hope her people had.

“Anything,” she said.  She knew the folly of making such promises, but what choice did they have?  Time was not on her side.  The moment the moon started to set, the being would be gone.  “Help us survive and prosper and I will give you whatever is in my power to give.”

There was a faint hint of a chuckle behind her.  “The magic is leaving this world,” the being said, as if she didn’t already know it.  “I cannot keep it from slipping away”-  it paused, just long enough for her to feel despair once again – “but I can assist you to open gates to another world, a place where magic remains strong.  You can go there and live there and regain the magics you thought long lost.”

Anne shivered.  “And the price?”

“You would have been wiser if you’d asked that earlier,” the being said.  The amused condescension in its voice made her grind her teeth, digging her nails into her palm to keep from snapping back.  She’d heard it before, from a father who saw her as nothing more than a pawn to be married off as he pleased.  “To do what you wish, I require an anchor to tie me to your world.”

“I …”  Anne composed herself.  “I will do whatever you wish.”

“The king’s marriage is without issue,” the being informed her.  “You will marry him.  You will bear his child, who will rule the country.  The gates will open when that child is on the throne and close, for a time, shortly after your blood no longer sits on the throne.”

Anne blinked.  She hadn’t been sure what to expect, but … marry the king?  It was unthinkable.  The king was married to the love of his wife, a woman who had already borne him a daughter.  And yet, she had heard disturbing rumours.  The king wanted a son, wanted him so desperately he was prepared to do anything, even divorce his wife, to get a legitimate heir.  Anne hesitated, torn between fear and something she didn’t care to look at too closely.  If she made the bargain …

Her voice sounded weak, even to her.  “My son will rule the country?”

“Your child will rule, in time,” the being said.  “And your people will be safe.”

“Then I will do as you ask,” Anne said. She wasn’t sure how she’d do it, but she’d figure it out.  She had to.  “My people need to leave now, before we lose everything.”

“You do,” the being agreed.  Power sparkled around them as the bargain was made.  “And there is one other thing …”

Anne shivered, helplessly, as the being whispered in her ear.  She’d always been told the future was in flux, that predicting the future allowed her to alter it, but now … she knew, on a level she could not deny, that her future was now fixed.  The bargain would hold true.  She would bear the king’s child, walking a path she could not escape, a path leading directly to her death before her people reached the promised land.  She would never see the world she’d saved …

… And, as the moonlight faded away, Anne Boleyn wept,

Chapter One: Mystic Albion, Now

“I’m telling you, this will work!”

Richard frowned as he studied his friend’s notes, struggling to read them as the air carriage lurched from side to side.  He’d never quite gotten used to flying in a carriage – pitchforks, as was traditional for me, were so much safer – even though he had to admit the carriage was a great deal more comfortable.  The riders were not in control of the carriage, leaving that to the complex network of spells woven into the wooden and dragon skin wings.  It just didn’t feel very safe.

“Brains, you’re using your own spell notation again,” he said, as he scanned the parchment sheets.  “It’s confusing.”

Brains – his real name was Hiram of Hardwick, but everyone called him Brains – shrugged expressively.  “I had to invent half the notation for myself,” he said.  “If anyone else is doing researched into magical topography, specifically how it interacts with gate spells, they’re keeping it to themselves.”

Richard sighed, well used to his friend’s tendency to plunge into research without thinking of the need to explain his findings to others.  Brains was a genius, by any reasonable standard.  The only reason he wasn’t top student was that he couldn’t be bothered doing anything that involved interacting with other students, at least outside the classrooms and research labs that made up a third of the school.  He didn’t care.  He’d never put his name down for Head Boy, let alone made a show of proving he could handle the job.  He lived and breathed for pushing the limits as far as they would go.

And that’s why someone needs to keep an eye on him, Richard thought.  Someone has to remind him to eat, every so often, and to try to keep his notes in order.

He sighed again.  Brains was the rarest of magicians, a Head and a Heart in one body.  His detractors had made snide remarks about jacks of all trades and masters of none, but his combined talents gave him insights into magic that few could match.  Richard was a Head and he knew that, given time, his plodding approach to magic would yield results, yet Brains was capable of moving ahead by leaps and bounds.  It didn’t bother him.  His friend was a good person and life with him was never boring, even though it could be dangerous at times.  It would be a long time before anyone forgot the trip into Always Summer, or the scolding they’d received when they’d returned to the school.  If Brains hadn’t been such a rare magician, and his family not so important, Richard feared the affair would have ended very badly. 

His lips twitched.  They were both seventeen, but beyond that their appearances had little in common.  Richard was brown-haired, Brains was blond; they both wore school robes, yet Richard wore his with style and Brains looked as if he had a habit of sleeping in his clothes, without even bothering to cast cleaning and ironing spells on his outfit before heading to class.  Richard was the commoner and yet, people had a habit of mistaking him for the aristocrat.  It was perhaps fortunate, he reflected at times, that Brains didn’t care.  His betrothed certainly did.

“You may have to explain your notes to me,” he said, with a sinking feeling.  Brains’s explanations were always fantastically detailed and practically incomprehensible.  He wasn’t trying to mislead, when he explained, but he understood the material so well he didn’t quite grasp that everyone else didn’t.  “And then we’ll need to translate them into something everyone can understand.”

Brains nodded, although he looked mulish at the thought of going back over the material instead of charging into the unknown.   Richard was good at convincing him to break the explanation down to the point anyone could understand it, provided they had a good grounding in applied magical theory.  It was one of the reasons Richard had been fostered by Brains’s family, after they’d met at Gatehouse.  Richard had been told the family oracles had foretold he’d be someone important, but he suspected it wasn’t true.  The problem with predictive magics was that everyone, certainly everyone who was anyone, had access to them too, making the future dangerously unpredictable as forecasters moved to change the futures they foretold.

He put the thought aside as he worked his way through the parchments.  Brains had been digging into advanced magics for years – Richard knew he was a good student and he still found it hard to keep up – and he’d digging into the spells behind gates.  He’d wondered why it was so hard to open them in certain places and so easy in others and, undaunted by the lack of prior research, started trying to figure out the answer.  If he was right …

“It’s like building a bridge,” Richard reasoned.  “The greater the distance between the two sides, the harder it is to build the bridge and, at some point, you just can’t muster the effort you need to build it.”

“At some point, the power requirements go well beyond your ability to produce,” Brains agreed, in a tone that suggested Richard’s explanation was right and yet wrong at the same time.  “But if there is distance, where is it?”

Richard frowned.  The question was a good one.  It was easy to open a gateway between Dùn Èideann to Londinium, but much harder to open one between York and Bolton even though the two towns were much closer together.  Logically, it should have been the other way round.  Magic bent the world out of shape – Gatehouse was far bigger on the inside than the outside – but there were limits.  Surely.

“I think we don’t understand the true nature of magical topography,” Brains continued, tapping the parchments.  “Imagine you’re standing on the lakeside, looking at the lake.  To you, the lake is a flat surface.  You don’t see the bottom and so you don’t know what it looks like.”

“You might jump in the lake and hit the bottom because you think the lake is deeper than it actually is,” Richard said.  It was rare for Brains to come up with an analogy of his own.  He wondered, with a sudden spark of jealously, if Helen had suggested it.  “Or sail across the water and hit a rock, lurking under the surface.”

“Precisely,” Brains said.  “So tell me … what rocks are lurking under the surface of magical topography?”

He launched into a long and complicated explanation, drawing in observations from both earlier researchers and his own experiments.  Richard reached for a notebook and hastily jotted them down, resolving to turn them into something a little more readable later.  Brains wasn’t given to worrying about people funding his research, but Richard had to.  Brains’s family had invested a great deal in both of them, over the last few years.  They wanted some kind of return on their investment.

“And I think we should be able to solve the problem,” Brains finished.  “If we can make it work …”

Richard felt a thrill of excitement.  It wasn’t easy for a village-born lad like himself to make an impression, no matter how talented he was.  The thought of creating something everyone would use … he smiled as the carriage brushed against powerful magical currents and lurched again.  No one would hold it against him, if all he really did was translate Brains’s vastly complicated notes into something actually workable.  Hearts jumped ahead, everyone knew; Heads filled in the blanks afterwards.  There was nothing shameful, he’d been told, in taking an idea and making it work.  As long as he didn’t claim all the credit, he’d be fine.

Helen won’t be pleased, he thought.  But she’s a Heart herself.

He shook his head as the carriage started to lose attitude and glide towards Gatehouse.  The school always took his breath away, even after being a student for nearly six years.  The castle itself was immense, wrapped in so much magic it was hard to tell what it really looked like.  The human eye just couldn’t make sense of the interdimensional structure, a blur of towers and keeps and arenas and things that were simply incomprehensible.  Raw magic flowed around the building, currents of power flowing through the Land of Always Summer and vanishing into the distance.  A shadow fell across the carriage as a dragon flew overhead, untouched and untouchable.  The Dragon Riders were up early, bonding with their mates as they ploughed through the sky.  Richard had wanted to be one of them once, but no dragon had wanted to bond with him.  He didn’t regret it.  Much.

Small flecks zoomed around the school, coming into sharp relief as they came in to land on the rooftop.  Men riding pitchforks, women riding broomsticks … snapping spells at each other as they practiced before hurrying down to class.  Richard smiled and waved at a trio of younger students, flying with the squeamish determination of children flying under their own power for the first time.  Stronger magicians could fly without a broom – Brains’s father had boasted he often flew from one end of the land to the other – but it would be a long time before Richard mastered the art himself.  His spells were solid – it was the main advantage of being a Head – yet he lacked the raw power to fly. 

The magic crashed over him as they landed, the box doors slamming open to allow them to escape.  Gatehouse was the centre of magic, he’d been told.  The very first Gate – the one that had allowed the Folk to escape OldeWorld and flee to Mystic Albion – had been opened at Gatehouse, the first to open and the last to close.  There were others, hidden under the Princely Castles, but they were far less important.  Gatehouse had once been the key to the world.  In a sense, it still was.

Brains caught Richard’s hand as their carriage flew off, returning automatically to its master’s hall.  “We need to go to the library.”

“I think we need to visit the Great Hall first,” Richard said, wryly.  “They have to welcome us home first.”

He saw Brains’s expression – his friend looked as if he’d bitten into something sour – and nodded in understanding, even as he led the way down to the hall.  The annual welcome speech for older students was boring – the Merlin, the head of the school, had a tendency to drone – yet failing to attend would mean a demerit and probable detention.  Brains might get away with it – the staff hadn’t been pleased when he’d outsmarted the anti-cheating wards designed to make students actually serve their detentions – but Richard certainly wouldn’t.  The Merlin would probably come up with something new and horrific, just to teach everyone else a lesson.  Too many other students had tried to follow in their footsteps.

And most of them failed, Richard thought.  They didn’t realise how Brains ducked the spells.

He smiled at the memory as they made their way into the hall.  It was huge, so huge the hundred seventeen-year-old students who made up the year looked isolated in the middle of vastness.  The glowing lights overhead cast the room into sharp relief, drawing his attention to the podium in the centre of the hall.  The spells running through the air ensured that the audience always saw and heard the speaker, whichever way he was actually facing.  It was hard to avoid listening, although it didn’t stop students from trying.  The important information was always conveyed by letter, sent two weeks before the students returned to Gatehouse.  Privately, Richard had always suspected the Merlin wanted a good look at the students before classes resumed the following morning.  The headmaster was supposed to be very good at spotting students who felt like fish out of water and making sure they got the help and support they needed to grow accustomed to the school.

The doors slammed shut with a loud BANG.  Richard jumped, even though he was used to be effect by now.  The podium, empty a second ago, was suddenly occupied by the headmaster.  The Merlin – a middle-aged man with long dark hair and a short beard – stood there, his eyes seeming to peer deep into Richard’s soul.  It was an illusion, but it still held him still.

Brains nudged him, breaking the trance.  “Helen isn’t here.”

Richard blinked in surprise.  Brains rarely paid attention to anyone – out of sight, out of mind – even his betrothed.  It was odd for him to even notice Helen was missing … Richard glanced from face to face, confirming his friend was right.  Helen was going to be in some trouble when she finally reached the school, unless she’d been delayed for some reason.  The Merlin would probably send her straight to detention.  And yet …

His heart sank.  What had happened, while he’d been away?  What could have happened, to make Brains take notice of Helen?  He wasn’t sure he wanted to know and besides, there was no point in asking Brains.  He might be a genius when it came to magic and all related subjects, but emotions were a closed book to him.  He hated to think he might be governed by them, to the point he couldn’t acknowledge and comprehend his own emotions let alone someone else’s.  Odd, for a Heart, but part and parcel of what made him. 

The Merlin was still speaking.  Richard dragged his attention back to the older magician, wondering why he had to use ten words where one would do.  They could be on their way back to their rooms by now, or heading straight to the library before dinner and bed.  They were old enough, now, to set their own bedtimes.  He was certain there’d be no problems from going to bed after the witching hour.

“And you will have the chance to showcase your abilities,” the Merlin continued.  “This is the start of your final two years at Gatehouse.  Your yearly project will let you show off to potential masters, both your talents and your skills at thinking outside the box.  If you do something new …”

Richard heard a rustle of excitement rippling through the hall.  Gatehouse had always encouraged its students, particularly the Hearts, to think outside the box, but there were limits to how far they were allowed to go.  Brains had cheerfully broken them, time and time again, yet even he hadn’t gone that far.  Most of his work had been either theoretical or suggested improvements to earlier works, which had been tested elsewhere.  The idea of being allowed to step outside the box and try something new, something wholly their own idea, was intoxicating.  It would be fun.  And who knew?  They might discover something new.

“You may pair up, if you wish, or work alone,” the Merlin continued.  “If the former, please remember the rules.  If the latter, remember you must provide a detailed outline of your work tied back to your sources.  We don’t want any confusion over who did what.”

Richard glanced at Brains, who winked.  Whatever they did, there would be plenty of work for both of them.  Richard wouldn’t be hanging on Brains’s coattails, while Brains wouldn’t be getting frustrated by having to go back and explain his work to examiners who didn’t understand what he was saying.  Besides, Richard would have to take the idea and see if they could actually make it work.  A theory was good, and it might get them a pass if it stood up to scrutiny, but something practical would be far better.  They could write their own ticket, find their own masters ..,.

“And remember, Always Summer is out of bounds,” the Merlin finished.  “I do not want to have to bargain again, not now and not ever.”

He vanished.  The doors crashed open again.  Richard wondered, as the students headed to the stairs leading to the dorms, just what had happened.  There were agreements between Gatehouse and Always Summer, agreements that should have kept students from being seriously harmed.  The entities who lived deep within the forest were inhuman and yet they always honoured the letter of their agreements.  If something had happened, something that had forced the Merlin to enter Always Summer and talk to the entities …

“We can make an anywhere-gate,” Brains said.  “I already have the theory.  If we can get it into practice, the prize is ours.

Richard nodded.  Trying and suceeding would be brilliant.  Trying and failing … if their theory was good, if impractical, they’d still get plaudits.  His mind raced.  They’d talked little about the future, over the years, but if they actually made the concept work they could go anywhere, do anything.  Magic flowed through the air, all around them, as they hurried up the stairs.  Richard felt his soul lighten as the power brushed against his skin and touched the core of his magic.  It was hard to believe there was anything it couldn’t do.

“Yeah,” he said.  If nothing else, they’d get respect for trying.  He had a feeling most students would look for improvements on well-known spells, rather than striding boldly into the unknown.  The examiners wouldn’t be too impressed with yet another spell to turn someone into a frog.  There were so many of them that even first-year students could cast them.  “If we can get it to work …”

Brains grinned.  “The theory is sound,” he said.  “We should be able to craft a spellcloud capable of assessing the hidden topography and allowing us to determine a way to compensate, then steer around it.  The trick is actually making it work.”

“And even if we can’t improve the gate spells, we can at least predict where the spells will and won’t work,” Richard said.  It would be nowhere near as impressive as an anywhere-gate, but it would be a valuable contribution to society and one that would give them a good start in life.  “What could possibly go wrong?”

Emily and the White Council

25 Nov

Emily and the White Council

A couple of people asked, after reading The Right Side of History, why the White Council (or at least elements of it) was so quick to throw Emily under the bus and do their hardest to get her tried, convicted and depowered/executed before anyone could do anything to stop them.  They thought the issue came out of nowhere <grin>.  It didn’t and here’s why.

In the real world – a dreadful place, I don’t recommend a visit – one of the principle issues with immigration is that immigrants have been raised in different places and don’t always think the same way as the locals.  (Americans think nothing of driving for hours to eat; Britons are often reluctant to drive more than an hour or so from their homes unless it’s for something major).  Immigrants have different ideas about a lot of things, from education to religion and clothing and, even if we don’t want to admit it, it can be quite difficult to judge which way someone will jump if you don’t share the same cultural background.  This renders them dangerously unpredictable, which fuels fear of the unknown.

Fair or not, this is human nature.  The stranger is always suspect.

Emily is a child of our world.  The White Councillors are not.  To us, she’s a comprehensible character with understandable motives.  To them, she’s a dangerously unpredictable element who could go left or right or straight ahead or even withdraw, based on a calculus they don’t share and certainly don’t understand.  They certainly don’t know she’s an immigrant, so they’re not making any allowances for her limited understanding of the world around her. 

And so, from their point of view, Emily is just bizarre.

She defeats a necromancer … how?  Why can’t she do it again?  When she does, why doesn’t she kill all of them?  Why isn’t she promoting herself, or responding to reasonable requests for alliances, or doing anything they would do if they were her?  Why is she picking such odd and mixed friends?  Why is she …?

King Randor gives her vast lands, wealth and power.  She gives them away!  She is a brilliant genius who invents lots of revolutionary innovations, yet she gives them away too? She captures a school and reignites a nexus point and declares she’s going to turn it into a university … what is that?  What will she do next?

They’d be a lot happier – they’d certainly understand – if Emily asserted herself, made use of the power base she created and became a great ruler.  But she is just weird.  She should be ruling her lands, not giving them away.  She should be …

From their point of view, Emily is a loose cannon.

And what are they going to do about it?

Bribe her?  She’s already wealthy beyond the dreams of Quark.  Smear her?  Most of the known world thinks she’s a heroine.  Kill her?  She’s powerful in her own right – she beat necromancers – and she has, as far as they know, a father who might be even more powerful and certainly much more ruthless.  And if they do … who’s going to beat the necromancers?  The Allied Lands were losing, before Emily arrived.  Perhaps she is a Child of Destiny after all.

Emily’s enemies were caught in a bind.  If they moved against her, they risked disaster.  If they did nothing, they risked disaster too.  Who knew what she would do next?  They didn’t.

All of this was brewing ever since Shadye died.  And, when the necromancers as a whole were defeated, it exploded. 

Her Majesty’s Warlord 15

22 Nov

Chapter Fifteen

I hadn’t planned it that way.

I’d known some degree of land reform was pretty much inevitable, if I wanted to turn the lands I’d been granted into a money-making fiefdom, but I hadn’t intended to go so far.  I’d hoped, when I’d had time to think about it, that I could start a more gradual progress towards reform, yet … when I’d realised how bad things had become, I’d seen no choice but to get the ball rolling as quickly as possible.  I hadn’t even considered, until the moment I looked at the accounts, putting Wilhelm in charge.  I hadn’t even had time to get to know him as more than a promising young officer, a man who might – one day – make a good commander.  It was quite possible I’d fucked up beyond repair.

The thought haunted me as I spent the next two weeks travelling my lands and seeing, for the first time, the reality behind the carefully-edited reports I – and my predecessor – had been sent.  The estates were small, by the standards of the country, yet vast compared to many others.  It was hard to believe, even after seeing Iraq and Afghanistan, just how little knowledge the peasants had of the outside world.  Their universe was little more than a cluster of villages, the lands over the nearest hill as strange and distant – to them – as Zangaria or Alluvia, thousands of miles away.  There were places so poor they made the dustbowl farmers of flyover country look rich, broken by a handful of farms that were actually a little more prosperous than the rest.  I swiftly leant, not remotely to my surprise, that those farmers either owned their lands outright or were buddy-buddy with Rizal and his cronies.  It forced me to move faster than ever before, when it sank in that Rizal wasn’t as alone as I’d hoped.  The last thing I needed was someone trying to kill me before the reforms were anything more than ink of paper.

There was nothing for it.  Fallon and I visited village after village, sorting out who worked what patch of land and working out new and improved land titles.  It wasn’t easy.  The farms were tiny patchworks, so far from the rolling fields of Kansas that it was hard to believe they were the same thing.  There were entire families, living off patches of land; there were communes and strange organisations that, at least on paper, looked decidedly fascistic, the peasants mimicking the hierarchy of the aristocracy.  I went through it all, making sure the land titles were carefully worded to make life difficult for any village headman who wanted to throw his weight around.  I’d seen too many bullies push villages around during my military service.  Here, with the lands in private ownership, it should be a great deal harder.

It wasn’t the only thing I did, of course.  I worked to set up local councils, who could handle minor issues that didn’t need intervention from Rizal, Wilhelm or me.  It wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped – the peasants were stanchly opposed, at least at first, to letting women and dependent children have the vote – but it was a start, a spark that might turn into a fire that would reshape the world.  Given time, it would flourish … if someone didn’t quench it first.  I kept going, setting up local cooperatives and making arrangements for them to purchase and share farming tools that no peasant could afford alone.  By the time I was done, I hoped, it would be hard for anyone to roll back my reforms.

There was a lot of grumbling, of course.  The peasants were about as hierarchical as the average military formation and a great deal more conservative.  The older men – and some of the women – were reluctant to risk anything, arguing that what was good enough for their great-grandfathers was good enough for them.  I understood, all too well.  They were permanently on the edge of disaster, to the point that one single bad harvest would send them plunging into starvation.  It didn’t help that the village headmen, some chosen by Rizal and others more or less pushing themselves into the post through force of fists, saw the reforms as a threat to their power.  But the younger ones thought it was worth trying, particularly as the papers I’d handed out would be hard to revoke.  A couple of good harvests, produced by farmers who got to keep most of their crops, would silence the doubters once and for all. 

I did my best, too, to dispense justice.  I had no idea who could be trusted and who was lying through his teeth – a problem I’d had back in Afghanistan – but I had an ace up my sleeve.  Fallon could, and did, cast truth spells, allowing me to determine who was trying to lie to me.  It was rarely as cut and dried as I’d hoped – most of the cases that were brought before me, during my progress, were ones the locals couldn’t handle for themselves – but it was a start.  I managed to sort out a complicated inheritance dispute – over what might as well have been cents – and granted a pair of women divorces from abusive husbands.  There was more grumbling about that, but I saw no choice.  I wasn’t going to leave them in households where the husband got drunk so often his death from alcohol poisoning was just a matter of time.

We rode through the fields and hills, silently carrying out a land survey and logging the resources on the ground, waiting to be used.  I wished, not for the first time, that I had more experience in such matters.  A civil war soldier would have found it easier to make an impact, turning the land into productive factories capable of churning out everything from railroad engines to guns.  It would be a very long term project for me, one powered by labour freed up from working the fields.  Or so I hoped.  It was going to take so long I feared the project might never get off the ground.  But I had no choice.  The factories I was establishing near the city were far too vulnerable to hostile politics.  What I did on my own land, I’d been told, was nobody’s business but mine.

As long as I hold the lands, I reminded myself.  What the monarchy gives, the monarchy can take away.

We were passing through a small village, really little more than a hamlet, when we heard of the bandits.  A local headman grumbled about them, living in the king’s forest and stealing the crops.  I suspected, reading between the lines, that the bandits were really peasants who’d fled the fields and gone into hiding, after their landlords had pushed them a little too far.  The forests were so vast an entire army could hide within the trees, lurking in the shadows and biding its time.  The thought interested me.  I made enquiries about where the bandits might have come from, locating their original families, then asked for a meeting.  I wasn’t remotely surprised to discover there were links between the peasants and the bandits, even though it was forbidden.  They were, after all, family.

The bandit leader, or at least his representative, met us at the edge of the forest.  I was perversely disappointed.  I’d expected, at least partly, someone who looked like Robin Hood, clad in green and carrying a bow.  He was a grubby man, wearing ragged clothes; I suspected, looking at him, that he was suffering from malnutrition.  One hand held a stick that a deniable weapon, a wise precaution in a world peasants were not allowed to touch – on pain of death – anything that might cripple or kill an aristocrat.  Personally, I thought that was silly.  Almost anything could be a weapon, in the right – or rather the wrong – pair of hands.

“My Lord,” the leader said.  I caught a glimpse of his teeth and tried not to wince.  They looked as if he’d endured weeks upon weeks of dental torture.  He might well have.  I’d seen the local interrogators at work.  “What do you want?”

I studied him for a long moment.  He wouldn’t have come at all, I suspected, if he hadn’t heard about the land reforms.  Technically, I was supposed to arrest and hang him and his fellows for trespassing in the royal forest … I was mildly surprised he’d come at all, even though I’d passed the message through his relatives in the hamlet.  He was taking one hell of a risk … I eyed the forest, wondering how many unseen eyes were watching the meeting.  If it went to hell, would the rest of the bandits try to save their leader or merely vacate their homes and flee deeper into the trees?

“I have an offer for you,” I said, bluntly.  “I need to recruit soldiers.  Armsmen.  I can, and I do, pay well, with other benefits and bonuses for good service.  Interested?”

He stared at me.  I don’t know what he’d expected – a demand he and his men present themselves for execution, or orders to vacate my lands before they were hunted down like dogs – but an offer of actual employment had probably not been on the list.  The aristocracy were expected to raise troops, for themselves as well as the monarch, yet … there were odd limits on who could be recruited.  I didn’t know why recruiting peasants was forbidden, even though it would probably have provided a safety valve for a society that desperately needed some way to skim off the intelligent and resourceful before they started plotting trouble.  It was probably something to do with frequent peasant revolts.  Could you trust a man to crack down on his own family?  I wouldn’t care to stake my life on it.

His eyes flickered to Fallon and then back to me.  I could practically see the wheels turning inside his head.  He and his followers were slowly dying, unable to find safe harbour or even go back to the fields.  The local aristocracy might even start hunting the most dangerous game … it had happened, I’d been told.  And yet, could they trust me?  I was a stranger … I hoped that actually worked in my favour.  They’d certainly spent a lot of time avoiding aristocrats they knew all too well. 

And even if you don’t come yourself, some of your followers will be tempted, I thought, as I waited.  There was no point in pushing him to make a snap decision.  You know it too.

He met my eyes, an odd gesture from a common-born peasant turned bandit.  “What are you offering?”

“Good pay,” I said, naming a sum.  “A place to rest your head.  Good training.  Good weapons.  Hopefully, a chance to win glory and even land on the battlefield.  And you’d be sworn to my service, rather than living in the wildlands.”

I grimaced as I let my words sink in.  I’d known people who talked about living off the grid, and it was a hell of a lot more practical here, but it was never easy.  Laura Ingalls Wilder had sanitised a lot, when she’d turned her memoirs into semi-fictional works of literature.  It wasn’t just the contemporary attitudes, most of which were reasonable in the context of their time, but the sheer grimness of their life on the prairie.  I dreaded to think what it must be like, playing outlaw in the real world.  The bandits weren’t anything more than a minor nuisance, at best.  The only reason they hadn’t been hunted down and slaughtered, yet, was that they couldn’t do any real harm.  What did the aristocracy care if a few peasants were robbed?  As long as their interests were untouched, they wouldn’t do anything about it. 

We haggled back and forth for a long time, before he finally agreed to take word back to his men and see who wanted to swear to me.  I hoped they’d listen, as we turned and made our way back to the horses.  Things were going to change and the bandits were going to find themselves isolated, as if they weren’t already.  The local population would become a hell of a lot less sympathetic when they, rather than absent landlords, owned the land.

“Sir,” Wilhelm said, a week later.  “Sir … is this wise?”

I shrugged as I surveyed the new recruits.  Either I’d underestimated how many bandits lived in the forest – which wasn’t impossible, given it was larger than the maps had suggested – or word had spread much further than I’d assumed.  There were over five hundred men gathered in the courtyard, all looking as if they’d stepped out of the dung ages.  A number would be rejected at once, by any sane military, but the remainder looked about as healthy as any other local recruits.  Some good food and proper exercise would get them the rest of the way, I told myself.  And then they’d be ready to move.

“It has to be done,” I said.  I knew what he really meant.  Sure, the aristocracy had the right to raise and arm soldiers, but the monarchy and the warlords would not be amused if – when – they found out what I was doing.  There were limits on how many cavalry could be raised in a hurry – horses weren’t rare, but they were expensive – and pre-gunpowder infantry were rarely worth their wages.  The musket and riflemen I intended to raise, on the other hand, would be a very real threat to the balance of power.  “Are you ready?”

Wilhelm nodded, curtly.  I’d spent the last two days testing him, forcing him to work his way through a number of training exercises.  He might be a bastard, something that I could hardly hold against him, but he was still of noble blood.  I’d cautioned him to treat the new recruits as people, rather than particularly dumb animals.  I hoped he knew better than that – he’d been treated poorly himself, just for being a bastard – but it was never easy to overcome society’s prejudices.  It was astonishing, and tragic, how many people fell back on ingrained habits when they felt unsure of themselves.  I told myself I’d be watching for a few days, before I made my way back to the city.  If Wilhelm developed any problems, I’d have time to correct them before it was too late.

“I can’t give him a chat parchment,” Fallon said, that night.  “I still haven’t been able to figure out how.”

I nodded, feeling a twinge of guilt.  I’d torn her away from her studies to bring her with me, even though she could have said no.  Did she know she could have said no?  I wasn’t sure how to ask.  On one hand, she was a magician who was – slowly but surely – developing her powers; on the other, she was a young woman in my service, a young woman who’d grown up a second-class citizen from birth.  If she said no, and I kicked her out, where would she go?  She couldn’t go home again.

“I’m sorry I haven’t had more time with you,” I said, sincerely.  “How are your studies coming along?”

“I can turn people into frogs now.”  Fallon smiled, just for a second, before it faded away.  “I can’t hold the spell against even the slightest resistance, and they never last very long, but …”

I shivered, despite myself.  Nearly a year in a strange alien world and I still wasn’t used to magic.  I understood fists and guns and power plays by haughty noblemen, but magic?  It was dangerously unpredictable.  The slight girl facing me could reduce me to an animal or turn me into a slave or … or … who knew?  It was so alien to my experience that the mere thought was enough to unman me.  And yet, here it was just a fact of life.

“I’m sure that’s a useful skill to have,” I managed, resisting the urge to touch the protective amulet around my neck.  A thought struck me and I smiled.  “If a princess kissed a man-turned frog, would he turn back?”

“… Sometimes.”  Fallon snorted, her lips twisting in disdain.  “Apparently, there are stories of princes turned to frogs.  Their fathers took their armies to the nearest kingdom and told the princesses to kill the transformed princes or else.  I think later spells got a lot more complicated.”

I had to smile, even though it wasn’t really funny.  “The simple solution,” I said.  “Unless you needed true love, as part of the mix.”

“I don’t think it would work,” Fallon said, after a moment.  “You can make people lust, with magic, but not love.  The spell couldn’t read true love.”

“Only in fairy stories,” I said.  “Charming.”

Fallon smiled.  I encouraged her to talk, learning what I could about her studies.  Magic was an unknown factor, but … that would change.  The more I knew about it, the more I could handle it.  Fallon was doing well, according to her, yet … I hoped her tutor wasn’t a fraud – or even just someone burnishing his credentials rather more than they deserved .  It was hard to be sure.  You didn’t have to be as foolish as Gilderoy Lockhart to mislead someone who didn’t know what you were talking about.  God knew, I’d done it myself on occasion.

I told myself to relax as the evening slowly turned to night.  I’d done what I could, laying the groundwork for land reform, industrial development and even the growth of a private army that would give the warlords an unpleasant surprise.  I could funnel more men and supplies out here, given time.  I should have long enough, I calculated, to get things ready to go before someone realised what I was doing.  It should all work out perfectly.  I didn’t see any problems threatening to overshadow my work.

In hindsight, that was truly – absurdly – optimistic.

Updates – Plus Book Promo

20 Nov

Hi, everyone

It has been a very frustrating few weeks.

To sum up a long story, my youngest son caught a cold that spread to me very quickly, only worse.  It felt like a normal cold at first, then things got a lot worse.  I was already congested and miserable, but I suddenly develop a major attack of sinusitis that felt as though I had broken my nose.  I had to beg the doctor for antibiotics and got them, which seem to be having at least some effect on me.  I also had a chest x-ray that was, thankfully, negative …

And then I went through it all again, with a new bug.  (Or perhaps the old one simply didn’t go away properly).  Anyway, I’m coughing and I’ve got a sore throat and generally feeling tired and miserable.  Bad news under any circumstances, but worrying when you consider my health history.  I keep remembering that the coughing and wheezing I did in 2017 was the prelude to the lymphoma/chest infection that nearly killed me in 2018.  So … I’m just trying to keep going, not the easiest thing in the world right now.

Anyway, on to writing.

I’ve finished the first draft of The Prince’s Gambit, which is currently awaiting edits.  There’s been a bit of a backlog because my editor got ill too, but I’m hoping to bring out Standing Alone in a week or so, followed by The Family Secret and Gambit.  I hope you’re looking forward to them. 

I’m intended to do The Stranded, a stand-alone fantasy novel following a handful of students from another world who get trapped in ours, next, followed by either Endeavour (Ark Royal) or The Infused Man (The Cunning Man II)Endeavour pretty much won the contest on my Facebook page, when I asked for votes, but I need to go through the plot again to see how things shape out.  (Besides, The Cunning Man did very well – if you liked it, please review.)  I do intend to go back to Emily, and I have been putting together a list of notes for post Child of Destiny books, but I want Adam’s trilogy finished first.

In other news …

We have been able to take advantage of the relaxed restrictions by going to London and Legoland twice, which is a Lego-themed park (who’d have guessed it) near London that’s suitable for younger kids.  It was better than I expected, although John was too young for some of the rides and he … was … not … happy.  The park seemed in two minds about monitoring social distancing and suchlike – there were ‘test and trace’ app stuff everywhere, but no one seemed to be really bothering to enforce it.  London was pretty much the same – some places were insistent you book ahead of time, like the Imperial War Museum; some places didn’t seem to care in the slightest.  COVID doesn’t seem to have done that much damage to the shopping streets, but it hit the small booksellers badly – one bookshop I knew has vanished, another has been repurposed as a cafe.  It’s possible COVID just made prior trends worse – London was heading downhill before the virus – but the city is poorer without the bookshops.

Things are well on the way to back to normal here – the libraries have stopped demanding that you book in advance before you visit, at least for borrowing and suchlike – but there’s a lot of little nagging points that are getting on my nerves.  As I noted above, test and trace seemed to be more theatre than anything else; lots of people and businesses don’t seem to be taking it very seriously.  We haven’t had so many political headaches as people in the US – and I think there’s a lot more trust in the NHS – but we’re still done with it.  There’s just been too much damage, inflicted on the rest of the city.  Edinburgh has lost quite a few attractions, from the Butterfly Farm to a number of cafes and restaurants.  I think there’s also a lot of people quietly stockpiling everything from food to petrol, particularly now, which has caused other issues down the line. Quite how it will all work out I don’t know.

My son and I have been playing Sonic Mania too.  It’s pretty good, a welcome return to the good old days after the 3D stuff (I could never get into it), but it does have its problems.

Anyway … my friend Dale Cozort, whom many of you will know from Alternate History, has brought out a set of new books.  The Best of Space Bats and Butterflies III is a continuation of his collection of essays, stories and background details – not so much fiction as detailed timelines and suchlike.  Char is the story of a near-human woman who stumbles into our world, provoking chaos: The Marsh War is pure alternate history, set in a world where the US occupied the Ukraine after WW2: Snapshot is a universe in which powerful aliens copy small sections of human history, then paste them into a world where they can meet up and interact.  (If you ever read the Well World books, it’s a similar concept if different in a lot of ways.)  They are all on kindle unlimited, along with some of his older works, so give them a try if you like the sound of them.

And so … I hear my sons downstairs.  I’d better go make them breakfast.

As always, if you like my work, please leave reviews.  Or send comments straight to me.  I’m always willing to hear them.


Dale’s Blurbs

Snapshot: Book 1 of the Snapshot Universe

Alternate realities you can fly to.

For eighty million years, the Tourists have taken Snapshots of Earth, creating living replicas of continents. Life in the Snapshots quickly diverges from the real world, creating a universe where humans and animals from Earth’s history fly between Snapshots, exploring, fighting, and sometimes meeting themselves.

In 2014, the Tourists’ newest Snapshot catches Middle East Analyst Greg Dunne rushing toward Hawaii to join his wife, who just went into labor. The new Snapshot doesn’t include Hawaii, cutting Greg off from everyone he loves.

Greg is thrust into the aftermath of a hidden, decades-old massacre, where Germans from a pre-World War II European Snapshot battle ranchers from a Korean War-era U.S. Snapshot,a fun house mirror version of the  US cut off from the world since 1953.No Beatles. No Internet. No Personal Computers. No cell phones. No Vietnam War.But an endless new frontier.

The prize in this struggle: an ancient, wild Madagascar Snapshot. Whoever controls it can fly to Snapshots where dinosaurs still roam, Indians rule the New World or Nazis or Soviets control Europe.

Caught between powerful opponents, and joined by a woman nearly driven mad by her past, Greg struggles to survive in this cutthroat new reality, to remain faithful to a family he may never see again, and to find a way back to his original Earth.

Set in a unique universe and played out in the shadows of larger social and technological issues, Snapshot is a fast-paced story of power and revenge, and an intriguing speculation of what we might have become.


Char of the Real People walked out of a mud-hole she didn’t walk into, wearing a deerskin skirt and carrying a crude spear. Then the murders started.

Char is a unique blend of police procedural and alternate reality, with county sheriff Francine Hart relentlessly pursuing clues–footprints and blood samples–that point to a murderess who is human-like, but not our kind of human.

Whatever else Char of the Real People is, Sheriff Hart discovers that her quarry is brilliant and supremely adaptable, eluding police again and again. Can even the smartest fugitive escape a modern police dragnet and get back to her own reality?

American Indian Victories

Have you ever wondered what would have ever happened if events in the past had gone differently? Have you ever wished that the American Indians hadn’t gotten the short end of the stick? American Indian Victories delivers over twenty realistic, well researched alternative history scenarios where the American Indians do significantly better than they did historically, along with a fiction excerpt set in world where Europeans never reached the New World and a novelette set in New England’s most bitter Indian war. Scenarios include:

  • What if the advanced Indian civilizations of Mexico and Peru had exchanged technology and ideas before Columbus?
  • What if a civilization equivalent to the Aztecs and Incas developed in eastern North America?
  • How could one shipwrecked sailor change the fate of a continent?
  • What if Carthage had colonized Mexico before the Punic Wars?
  • What if the Spanish conquistadors had set up independent kingdoms?
  • What if the ice age animals of the New World had survived to be domesticated?

Fair warning: The scenarios make up around 80% of the book and they do assume a fair amount of interest in and knowledge of history. The fiction should work for most science fiction readers.

The Best of Space Bats & Butterflies

Space Bats & Butterflies Book Three is yet another eclectic collection of the best alternate history or time-travel stories, book excerpts, essays and world-building exercises from the ninety-plus issues of a long-running Alternate History zine.

  • Spain Joins the Axis.
  • A Rocket Race in the 1930s?
  • Could you save Poland from the Nazis?
  • Alternatives From Little Known but Pivotal Wars
  • Rif War
  • Boer War
  • Communeros Rebellion (Spanish Civil War in 1519)
  • Alternate Technology
  • Electric World
  • Confederate Bicycle Dragoons
  • US Synthetic Rubber Industry Fails

Fiction stories and excerpts:

  • It’s 1949. After an alternate World War II, US troops occupy the western Soviet Union and Stalin wants his country back.
  • Descendants of the Spanish Conquistadors become pawns in a Great Power struggle between the US and Tsarist Russia.
  • A girl from a stone-age alternate reality stumbles into a modern paintball game, a murder and a remorseless police manhunt.
  • A mysterious doctor brings murder victims briefly and painfully back to life to help solve their murders.

Nazi Treasure Hunt Book One: Marsh War

Marsh War is an alternate history novel set in the aftermath of an alternate World War II where Hitler went for Moscow rather than the Caucasus in spring 1942. As a result, World War II in the east stalemated deep inside Soviet prewar territory. The Soviets were too weak to push the Germans out, even when the western allies pushed into Germany. Diehard Nazis fled to the German-held Soviet Union and held out there for years until the western Allies crossed into Soviet territory and destroyed them.

With the Soviet Union battered and partially occupied, the United States emerges from World War II as the World’s only real Great Power. Great, right? Not really. In 1949, two years after they destroyed the last conventional Nazi resistance, the US still occupies large parts of the western Soviet Union and has been sucked into the treacherous politics of the Polish/Soviet border regions, with nominal allies close to war with each other over economically valuable and ethnically mixed areas.  Stalin pursues his intrigues in this dangerous region, while Nazi remnants scheme to regain power.

While the US settles in for a postwar boom, US occupation forces in the Soviet Union search for missing German scientists, Nazi advanced technology and looted Nazi treasures. They also search for missing loved ones and brace for a coming war they are woefully unprepared for.

Her Majesty’s Warlord

19 Nov

Chapter Thirteen

“It is unforgivable!”

I sat in my seat, in the council chamber, and watched as Sir Essex ranted to the assembled councillors.  He’d been going on and on for nearly an hour, after summoning the meeting and demanding the immediate presence of all the king’s councillors.  It was a grim reminder for me that the king’s power was very limited, that he couldn’t deny his councillors if they united against him.  I was tempted to suggest I led a brigade of troops into the chamber, arrested and beheaded the councillors on the spot and then declared the king the supreme authority once again, but their successors would merely unite against us.  The bastards had Affluenza.  They thought they were too wealthy and powerful to be touched and they were probably right, at least for the moment.  Once the middle class got a lot more powerful, it would be a great deal easier to demand checks on the nobility’s power.

“To put a mercenary in a position of power is one thing,” Sir Essex thundered.  He made the word mercenary sound, once again, like child molester.  Or regicide.  “To overrule the nobly born on favour of a base-born bastard is quite another!”

I sighed, inwardly.  There was no such thing as meritocracy in the kingdom.  You could be as thick as too short planks and, as long as you were nobly born, people would be forced to entrust you with wealth, power, and responsibility.  I wondered, not for the first time, how many noble estates were really being run by their stewards, intelligent men taking advantage of masters with nothing between the ears.  My ancestors had run rings around their old masters, I recalled; they’d often managed to outwit men who were, according to the prevailing orthodoxy, their superiors.  I tried not to smirk at the memory of Robert Smalls, by distant ancestor.  He wouldn’t have gotten away with stealing a ship under the nose of its captain if the idiot had realised Smalls was actually a very intelligent and capable man.

Smalls had somewhere to run, I reminded myself.  How many of the local commoners have somewhere to go?

I pushed the thought aside and looked from face to face, trying to gauge how many people were inclined to side automatically with the Master of Horse.  Sir Essex had a talent for putting noses out of joint, if I was any judge.  It was quite possible his enemies would unite against him, if not behind me, if he pushed them too far.  But that would only happen if they thought they could get away with it.  Sir Essex had a network of friends, relatives and clients scattered all over the city.  A failed attempt to bring him down would bring his enemies down instead.

“You have raised an important point,” the king said, finally.  His voice was so bland it was impossible to tell if he agreed with Sir Essex or if he was just humouring him.  “It is true that noble precedence must be honoured.”

“There are already accounts of the exercise on the streets,” Sir Essex snapped.  He jabbed a finger at me, even as there was an intake of breath at such blatant disrespect.  “And they are telling lies about me!  I demand justice!”

I tried to match the king’s blank face.  I hadn’t told anyone to write stories about Sir Essex – I didn’t think he needed help to make him look like an idiot – but I’d funded, directly or indirectly, the printing presses that had been used to churn out broadsheets … some of which, I had to admit, had started raising questions the aristocracy wanted buried.  I silently saluted the mysterious Emily, inventor of the printing press or cross-dimensional traveller or whatever she really was.  The rapid spread of writing and numbers had ensured the broadsheets could neither be buried, nor dismissed.  It would be hard, although not impossible, to keep word from spreading right across the city.

The king raised a hand.  “Sir Elliot,” he said.  “Would you like to reply to those very serious charges?”

I kept my voice calm.  “Sir Essex is to be commended for his excellent choice of an infantry commander,” I said.  My words suggested a company or even a regiment CO, not someone in command of a couple of platoons at most.  My listeners probably wouldn’t know the difference.  “It was his officer who led the attack that won the engagement.  Sir Essex should be praised for his choice of men.”

Sir Essex purpled.  He knew I was mocking him, even as I bathed him in praise.  I was pretty sure most of my audience knew the same, although it would be tricky for them to call me out for it.  Everything I said was technically true.  Hell, if Sir Essex had taken the whole affair in good part, I would have praised him and meant every last word.  He really had made a good choice of infantry commander.

I pushed on.  “It is true that Sir Essex’s orders were disobeyed,” I continued, ignoring his snort of triumph.  “However, the overall orders were to win the engagement.  Sir Essex’s commander” – I tried not to mention the man’s name – “saw an opportunity and took it, winning the engagement in a single swift strike.  And it worked!”

“It might not have worked,” Sir Essex growled.  “What would have happened then?”

“A few infantrymen would be dead,” Lord Daladier said.  “It would be a small price to pay.”

“That is not how wars are won,” Sir Essex said.  “Where is the honour?  Or the glory?”

“The purpose of war is not to win glory,” I told him, flatly.  “The purpose of war is to win!”

“And no one expects mercenaries to actually win their wars,” Sir Essex sneered.  “Why, if you did, you wouldn’t be needed any longer.  Would you?”

“There will always be wars,” I said, dryly.

“And who can tell if an outsider can be trusted?”  Sir Essex addressed the table, waving his hand at me as he spoke.  “Who does he really serve?”

Lord Daladier smirked.  “If he wishes to keep playing at one of us,” he said in a tone that made me want to break his nose, “he’ll have to serve His Majesty well.”

“And yet, he brings new innovations to the city,” Sir Essex sneered.  “How much will he change?”

Sir Horace leaned forward.  “The New Learning has changed the world,” he said, simply.  “Those who do not adapt will die.”

I sighed, inwardly, as the debate raged around the table.  The innovations – mine and others – weren’t the real cause of their unhappiness, although they played a role.  They’d grown up in a world they understood, even if they disliked it.  Everyone had a place in society, everyone knew what they were expected to do … now, the world was shifting around them and they honestly didn’t know where it would end.  Sir Essex was a brilliant horseman – even I admitted it – one who’d been put in the saddle almost as soon as he could walk.  He’d trained for war, war of a kind that was rapidly coming to an end.  I remembered my first real battle outside Damansara and shuddered.  The old way of war had died that day, along with a warlord’s son and his retainers.  Sir Essex would die too,  if he charged into the guns.  I almost hoped he would.

The debate grew sharper, digging up changes old and new.  They hated the broadsheets, they hated the guns, they hated the steam engines … I hadn’t done any of those yet, but it was just a matter of time.  They hated me recruiting their womenfolk – they suggested, despite all the chaperones, that their wives and daughters would lose their virtue – and feared what it would do, as more and more useful skills trickled down to the poor.  I told myself, as I hastily reviewed my escape routes, that the changes would continue, with or without me.  Sir Horace was right.  The kingdoms that failed to adapt to the new world and innovate were doomed. 

There’ll be other changes coming soon, I thought.  Better medicine would lead to a population boom.  I intended to improve farming techniques, hopefully ensuring higher crop yields … who knew?  If I could reduce the number of people needed to work on the farms, those people could go elsewhere.  A bigger army, perhaps one akin to Napoleon’s, would reshape the world.  And those who try to stand in the way will just get crushed.

The king tapped the table, when the debate finally started to wind down.  I felt a pang of sympathy for him.  He’d probably wanted to call a halt earlier, but there was too great a chance of them simply ignoring him.  His authority was already far weaker than I’d dared fear.  If they overrode him so blatantly, what little he had left would be gone.  I dreaded to think what would happen if – when – Princess Helen took the throne.  Her power base would be even weaker, unless I built up the army first.  It might just be enough to keep the aristocracy from doing something stupid.

And we can keep them busy arguing over who is going to take the throne, I mused.  The idiots who killed Caesar never stopped to think about what would happen after the dictator was dead.

“Sir Essex will be commended for selecting an officer who can fight and win battles,” the king said.  “However, direct defiance of one’s superior, regardless of the reason, is not acceptable.  Accordingly, Wilhelm must be punished.”

I groaned, inwardly.  What would it be?  A flogging?  The last thing I needed was someone as competent as Wilhelm seething with resentment, bearing a grudge that would lead him to plot against his monarch.  If someone flogged me in public, I’d be hopping mad and my loyalty would vanish like a snowflake in hell.  Or an amputation?  Or … or what?  Hell, I didn’t want to see him dishonourably discharged either.  He was a good man.  I could make use of him. 

“Your Majesty.”  I spoke quickly, too quickly to choose my words with perfect care.  “I propose, as a punishment, that Wilhelm be transferred to the infantry.”

The king gave me a considering look.  “I was under the impression he was already part of the infantry.”

“He’s a mounted infantryman,” I told him.  “His unit is trained to gallop to the battlefield, then dismount and fight from the trenches.  He may not be charging into battle, unlike the cavalry, but he is still a horseman.  A few months in the infantry will teach him a lesson.”

Sir Essex looked torn between agreeing with me and insisting on something harsher.  I tried to hide my amusement.  Please don’t throw me in the briar patch!  It wasn’t much of a punishment, to my eyes, but Sir Essex had to think it was a bit much.  I hoped Wilhelm felt differently.  Riding on horseback, even as mounted infantry rather than cavalry, was more prestigious than marching to the battlefield.  That would change, as it sank in that riding to the guns was asking to die, but it would take time.  Wilhelm might prefer the flogging.  In his place, I might have preferred it too.

“Then the question is resolved,” the king said.  He glanced at Sir Essex.  “Unless you wish to plead for mercy?”

“The punishment is suitable,” Sir Essex growled.  “I trust it will not happen again.”

The look he sent me suggested he wanted me dead, preferably after torture.  It was hard to be sure, but I suspected he thought I’d played him in some way.  I wondered, idly, if he’d ever work out the truth.  Sure, Wilhelm wouldn’t be pleased to spend a few months in the infantry, but the infantry were the future.  I’d undercut Sir Essex by proposing a harsh punishment … and, if my guess was correct, won Wilhelm’s loyalty too.  Perhaps.  I tried not to let my irritation show on my face as the council turned its attention to other matters.  It would have been so much easier if Sir Essex had stolen the credit for Wilhelm’s victory.  If nothing else, he might have been smart enough to give his subordinate more room for manoeuvre.

It wasn’t easy to hide my boredom as the council discussion veered from topic to topic, almost all of little interest to me.  What did I care about ambassadorial precedence?  Or demands from traders for monopolies … actually, I told myself, that one could get quite serious.  If someone had a stranglehold on a certain product, be it iron ore or silk or whatever, they could drive the prices up as they pleased.  And then smugglers would start bringing it into the city, reducing tax revenue to almost nothing.  The proposals to tax merchants who didn’t enjoy royal favour were going to end badly, very badly.  The kingdom was already running short of money.

I took a breath, then signalled for attention.  “Taxation is like dairy farming,” I said, shamelessly stealing a quote from an author none of them had ever heard of.  I rather thought Sir Terry would have approved of my slight revision.  “The object is to get the maximum of milk with the minimum of moo.  And if you put the taxes up a great deal higher, all you will get is moo.”

“Very witty,” Sir Edmund said.  “But what is the point?”

“People respond to incentives,” I told him.  “Profit is one such incentive.  If taxes are too high, profits go down and so does the incentive to work hard and earn money.  Worse, because taxes are too high, people start smuggling goods into the city and therefore tax revenue vanishes completely.  The trick is to set the taxes low, but to encourage merchants to make more profits, leading to more tax.”

Lord Mathis raised his eyebrows.  “That makes no sense.”

“What is bigger,” I asked him.  “Fifty percent of a hundred gold coins, or ten percent of a thousand?”

I knew, even as I spoke, they were unlikely to listen.  They didn’t think in terms of a modern economy, when they thought at all.  To them, the merchants were just sources of money and woe betide any shopkeeper who didn’t have cash on hand when the taxmen came calling.  I knew, now, why interest rates on loans were so high.  They were rarely repaid and very few, if any, moneylenders could do anything about it.  Sue the king and his aristocrats?  The thought was laughable.  And, after the aristocracy had stopped laughing, the moneylender would be thrown into jail until he agreed to cancel the debts.

What is the point of investing, I thought morbidly, if you don’t even get to earn back your original investment?

The debate went on, even though everyone – including me – knew the outcome well before the king agreed to confirm a couple of monopolies and several new taxes.  I suspected they would be about as effective as passing laws against political pork, but none of the aristocrats were interested in listening to my opinion.  The princess might, in private.  I made a note to discuss it with her later as the meeting broke up, the councillors filing into the next room to eat and drink before returning to their mansions.  I wanted to leave at once, but the princess summoned me before I could go.

“You need to leave the city for a few days,” she said, when we were alone.  “They need time to cool down.”

“Sir Essex is an idiot,” I said, bluntly.  “He should be glad his side won the exercise.”

“Yes.”  Princess Helen looked irked.  I suspected, reading between the lines, that Sir Essex had been one of the young men who’d paid court to her.  He was quite a few years younger, from what I recalled, but he was certainly arrogant enough to believe he could get the princess to marry him, then deal with the inevitable opposition from the rest of the aristocracy.  “He’s an idiot.  But he’s a well-connected idiot.”

She ran her hand through her hair.  “What you saw, just then, was a tiny fraction of the pressure he and his supporters brought to bear on my father.  Sir Essex pushed for you to be fired.  Reading between the lines, I think trouble has been brewing for a while.  We’re lucky they didn’t find a better cause.”

“And they were prepared to throw Wilhelm to the dogs, just to get at me,” I said.  “Are they that scared of me?”

“Yes.”  Princess Helen shrugged.  “Maybe not you, personally, but the changes sweeping over the world.  It makes them stupid.”

And what will they do, I asked myself, when the king dies?

The princess shook her head.  “Right now, I would advise you to spend some time on your lands.  I believe you’ve never visited them?  Go now, see how things are.  It’ll give me time to cool things down here, to play politics to limit their ability to do damage. Once you get back … we’ll see.”

I hesitated, unsure if I wanted to take her advice – it was interesting it wasn’t a direct order – or not.  I’d certainly been planning to take a look at my lands.  The missives from my stewards had been mindlessly optimistic, to the point they’d worried me.  And yet … I’d had too many things to do in the city. 

“Yes, Your Highness,” I said, finally.  It was hard not to feel as if I were being pushed out of the city, although I knew the princess had little choice.  “I’ll take Fallon and a few others.  Perhaps Wilhelm too, if he wants to come.  A sign of favour might soften the blow.”

“Good thinking,” Princess Helen said.  “I look forward to seeing you when you return.”

Chapter Fourteen

It was common, I’d been told, for the great aristocrats to travel in mighty convoys, accompanied by their servants and protected by their armed retainers and bodyguards.  I was inclined to think it was nothing more than a waste of resources, even if I hadn’t been brought up to believe I should make a show of conspicuous consumption.  I rode a horse to my lands, with Wilhelm riding behind me and a small carriage bringing up the rear.  Fallon sat behind me, her arms wrapped around my chest.  I tried not to let myself get distracted by the feeling of her body pressing against mine.

The landscape grew more desolate, the further we rode from the city.  It wasn’t that far from Roxanna, but it was like stepping into another world, or far back in time.  Great noble estates contrasted oddly with miles upon miles of forest, all belonging – at least on paper – to the king.  The commoners were banned from hunting, although I was fairly sure there was no way to suppress poaching completely.  The punishments might be dire, to the point they were effectively fatal, but starving peasants weren’t going to worry about punishment if poaching was the only way to feed their children.  I sighed under my breath, privately resolved to ignore any poachers if I saw them.  I didn’t care if they hunted in the king’s private forest.

I felt my heart sink as we passed a boundary stone and cantered into my lands.  They were an odd patchwork of small villages, each one looking grimly and so poor I doubted there was a single coin amongst the inhabitants.  The people looked worn down by life, the men eying me warily while the women averted their gaze or shoed the children indoors.  The fields were surprisingly small, worked by hand rather than machines … I was sure, suddenly, that the locals grew nothing more than the bare minimum, just to avoid having to surrender their crops to their landlord.  My predecessor hadn’t taken much interest in his estate, I’d been told.  He’d left it to a handful of stewards who’d sent rosy reports, while doing … doing what?  I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

You need to know, I told myself.  You’re the landlord now.

My muscles ached as we passed a handful of larger and more prosperous farms and rode up to the mansion itself.  The building looked more like a small castle than an proper manor, with solid stone walls, murder holes and battlements.  My experienced eye suggested it would have been pretty impossible to storm, in the age before gunpowder and cannons.  The walls were too strong, the entrances too small.  Magic would have sufficed, but who had magic here?  The only other option was laying siege to the walls and the peasants rarely had time to do anything of the sort.  They were needed in the fields.

And so they have to either starve or submit, I thought, darkly.  It was clever, in a nasty sort of way.  But once they start churning out gunpowder, all of that is going to change.

I pulled on the reins, slowing the horse to a stop as the gates opened.  The steward stepped outside, his eyes going wide for a moment as he realised how few we actually were.  I took advantage of his brief confusion to study him thoughtfully, trying to gauge what sort of person he was.  It was hard to say.  He was somewhat overweight, suggesting he was very well fed in a place of near-constant poverty.  His clothes were common – he wasn’t breaking the sumptuary laws – but cut in a manner that hinted at nobility.  I cursed under my breath.  I knew the type.  I’d met them before.  This was a man who would put his personal profit ahead of everything else.

“My Lord.”  The steward bowed deeply.  “I am Rizal, Steward of Tazenda.  Welcome.”

I slipped off the horse and nodded, curtly.  “Thank you,” I said.  “I trust you got my message?”

“Yes, My Lord,” Rizal said.  There was something in his voice that suggested he hadn’t expected us quite so quickly.  “The estate is at your service.”

“Good,” I said.  It was important to make it clear I was The Boss, without pushing Rizal into open resistance or passive-aggressive stalling.  “We need baths, then something to eat.”

“Yes, My Lord,” Rizal said.  He beckoned to a pair of stableboys, who eyed us fearfully.   “Take care of their horses.”

He turned and led the way into the manor.  I eyed his back thoughtfully as we followed him.  It was clear we’d caught him by surprise.  He might well have assumed we’d need several days to reach the manor, if we’d travelled in convoy.  If we had … it would have given him time to make proper preparations for our arrival, ensuring we didn’t see anything he didn’t want us to see.  My heart sank as I looked around, noting just how much the interior resembled a fortress.  The stone walls were designed to channel attackers in specific directions, ensuring they were at a disadvantage when they ran into the defenders.  I wouldn’t have cared to try to storm the building without guns and other modern weapons.

I kept my eyes open as we were led into the living quarters.  They were less private than I’d hoped, servants carrying large jugs of steaming water into the chambers, pouring them into the bathtubs and then retreating again.  I tried not to feel guilty.  There’d been hot and cold running water in the city, but clearly not here.  There weren’t even any cold water pipes!  I winced, inwardly, as a pair of maids bowed to us.  They eyed the steward as if he were a wild animal who could turn nasty at any moment.

“I’ll want to see the records, after dinner,” I told Rizal, after sending Fallon and Wilhelm to their rooms.  “Tomorrow, we’ll tour the estate.”

Rizal blinked.  “You don’t want to hurt?  My Lord?”

I hid my amusement.  “No.  I came here to inspect the estate.”

He scurried away, looking shaken.  I scowled after him, then directed the maids to leave before undressing and scrambling into the tub.  It was hard to miss their relief.  I made a mental note to ask some pointed questions later, or – perhaps – have Fallon do it for me.  The maids might not talk to me, but they’d talk to her.  I hoped … I washed quickly, then clambered out, dried myself and changed into clean clothes.  We would eat, and inspect the records, and then …

The sense that something was deeply wrong only grew worse, as I surveyed the records Rizal had – reluctantly – provided me.  They were a tangled mess, put together so poorly I knew he was trying to hide something.  I was mildly surprised one of the scrolls didn’t have a line saying never show to the IRS.  Not, I supposed, that there was anything akin to the IRS in Johor.  The king’s treasury was the closest thing there was and it was so poorly run I suspected anyone who wanted to evade taxes didn’t have to try very hard.  As long as you didn’t look rich, in a world where you had to flaunt your wealth to prove you had it, you wouldn’t draw much attention from the king’s taxmen. 

I questioned Rizal extensively, pointing out the discrepancies in the accounting.  I was no expert, but I had handled battalion funds in both worlds and I could see where the figures didn’t add up.  It didn’t help, I supposed, that he taxed the locals in crops and sold them onwards to earn money, rather than simply letting them sell their own wares and tax the income.  I groaned as I worked my way through the figures.  The peasants weren’t allowed to keep more than the bare minimum, if they were lucky.  I was entirely sure the peasants didn’t grow anything more than they needed to support themselves, if they didn’t run into the forest and become bandits.  What did they have to lose?

“Fuck it,” I snarled, when I couldn’t take it anymore.  “What the fuck were you thinking?”

Rizal grovelled.  “My Lord, His Lordship demanded I work the peasants to the bone!”

I scowled.  It might be true.  My predecessor had been a greedy bastard, by all accounts.  A man too short-sighted to realise he was cutting his own throat might be dumb enough to force Rizal to keep pressing the peasants until they snapped or died.  And yet, looking at the figures, I was sure Rizal was skimming off something for himself as well as his old master.  There were quite a few sums of money that seemed to have vanished without trace.

“Things are going to change,” I said, tartly.  “Is that clear?”

“Yes, My Lord.”

I put my plans together over the following day, as we were shown around the estate.  Rizal had explained, when I pushed, that the peasants were serfs, effectively slaves.  They were bound to the land, to the point that leaving was a capital crime and anyone who fled – like the runaways I’d tried to free in Damansara – would be executed, if they weren’t sold into slavery instead.  They didn’t own the land and, unsurprisingly, there was little interest in any sort of improvements.  Everything was done by hand, even the ploughing.  There weren’t even any windmills!  What few animals they had were kept for eggs and milk.  Naturally, they were highly taxed too.

It’s a miracle they haven’t risen up already, I thought, coldly.  The serfs looked downtrodden, but – here and there – I could see resentful eyes following us.  Peasant revolts, driven by hatreds  they’d been forced to bury for far too long, were savage.  I’d seen the remains of uprisings in Warlord Aldred’s territory, when his power had finally been broken.  The peasants had caught some of his men and done things to them that would have shocked even the Taliban.   It’s only a matter of time.

Rizal wouldn’t approve of my plans, I knew, but I didn’t much care.  The social system in front of me was doomed.  If I didn’t make reforms now, the serfs would eventually rise up and make a desperate bid for freedom.  And the odds of success were not high.  It was hard to be sure – the history books in Damansara had been written by the winners, who wanted to make it clear that peasant revolts were offences against the natural order – but it was clear no revolt had succeeded for long.  I had to either make things better or lay the groundwork for a revolt that would actually succeed.

Which might not be wise, I thought.  Right now, they see me as an aristo.

The following morning, I summoned a general meeting.  It was rare – Rizal had spent hours trying to dissuade me – but necessary.  I’d been poor.  I knew how the poor thought.  They might accept being at the bottom, as long as they knew the rules, but the moment they thought they’d been cheated, that the rules had been ignored, they’d rise up in a body to demand recompense.  If they thought they were entitled to something, they’d be hell to pay if they didn’t get it.

I stood on a table and surveyed the crowd.  I’d chosen to hold it in the manor grounds, rather than visiting the villages one by one or inviting the peasants into the manor itself.  They were a strange mass: old and bearded men showing no trace of their feelings, younger men looking bitter and downcast, young women standing right at the back … it bothered me, on some level, that there were only a handful of older women.  Serfs aged fast, but still … I feared the worst.  Life was nasty, brutish and short.  It was quite possible the older women were sent out into the countryside to die, when they were no longer able to contribute.  The harsh demands of survival trumped morality.

“Thank you for coming,” I said, trying to balance politeness with my best parade ground voice.  They stared at me in shock.  Politeness, from an aristo?  The many hells of local religions had all just frozen over.  “We have much to discuss.”

I took a breath.  I had their attention.  Now, could I make them listen?  No, could I make them believe?  If they didn’t …

“It is clear there needs to be a great deal of reform,” I said, “before these lands live up to their true potential.  And I will get the ball started.”

I spoke for nearly an hour, outlining the reforms I intended to make.  Land reform was a top priority.  I’d served in South Korea, where land reform had saved the country, and the Philippines, where land reform had been fucked up so badly it might well have made things worse for the locals.  If the peasants – no longer serfs, not to me – owned their land, and were entitled to keep and sell most of their produce, they’d grow more.  I was sure of it.  The men in front of me knew how to get more from their land, they just didn’t see the point.  Why bother when it would just be taken from them?  But if they got to keep it …

My throat hurt – I have never liked the sound of my own voice – but I kept going, trying to get the ideas out there before someone could stop me.  Rizal would not approve … hell, Princess Helen would not approve.  Even if she agreed, it would be hard to get word from the top all the way down to the bottom.  There were too many people with vested interests that directly conflicted with land reform.  And even if the king was as strong as any king, it would be hard to force the reforms to go through without a fight.  My king wouldn’t stand a chance.

I outlined everything, from farming co-ops – in which the community bought expensive farming tools and shared them – to local education and other long-term projects.  Windmills alone would make one hell of a difference, as would community justice rather than law and order resting in the hands of the landlord’s men.  Rizal hadn’t done a good job of maintaining the law, even when he hadn’t been perverting it.  It would be better, at least at the start, for the community to have more of a say in such affairs.

“I don’t promise these will work,” I finished.  I’d done some work with Provincial Reconstruction Teams and Civil Affairs officers back in Afghanistan, although I hadn’t really been more than a bodyguard.  I would have sold my soul for a proper PRT officer with the training and experience to really make a go of it.  “But if you take advantage of this opportunity, it will be good for both of us.”

I held court for the rest of the day, speaking to peasants – male and female alike – and trying to disperse justice.  They didn’t seem to know quite what to make of me.  I was treating them as human beings, not serfs.  I wasn’t looking down my nose at them, or molesting their women, or generally making Prince Joffrey look like a decent man.  A couple took the risk of asking me for land deeds, something roughly akin to demanding proof I intended to keep my word, and were utterly astonished when I gave them the deeds without hesitation.  I’d planned to go around the villages, handing them out, but instead I wound up giving out most of them at once.  There might be some hiccups, as we sorted out who really owned what, yet … I allowed myself a smile as the meeting finally started to turn into a massive party, then broke up.  If someone tried to claim too much land, his neighbours would take care of him.

“My Lord,” Rizal said, as we made our way back to the audience chamber.  It was a throne room in all but name.  “I really must protest?”

“Must you?”  I allowed my voice to cool until it could freeze ice.  “Tell me, what were you thinking when you abused the people in your care?”

Rizal stared at me, as if I’d suddenly started speaking in tongues.  “My Lord” – he shook as he spoke – “my master, my former master, gave me no choice.”

“I have chosen to believe you,” I lied.  The record books had made it clear Rizal was skimming … and skimming so effectively, I thought, his former master hadn’t known the money was even there to be skimmed.  “However, things are going to change.  What you did in the past will be forgotten, if not forgiven, as long as you work for me under the new steward.  If you decide to try to cheat me in anyway, or disobey my orders, or do anything I might reasonably find objectionable, you will be stripped of your title and thrown to the peasants.”

“My Lord …”  Rizal swallowed, hard.  “I …”

“Quiet.”  I let the word hang in the air.  “I am a soldier.  I understand that orders from one’s superior excuse everything” – true here, if not on Earth – “but I cannot trust you to handle your tasks, not until you have regained my trust.  Do you understand me?”

“Yes, My Lord,” Rizal managed.  “I …”

“Good.”  I looked at Wilhelm.   I hadn’t intended to put him in the hot seat, if only for a few short weeks or months, but I was short on options.  Besides, it would keep Wilhelm out of the city long enough for Sir Essex and his cronies to forget about him.  “You’ll be the new steward.  I think you’ll find it an interesting job.”

Wilhelm blinked, then smiled.  “Yes, My Lord.”

Her Majesty’s Warlord CH12

18 Nov

Chapter Twelve

The problem, I discovered, was that I simply had too many irons in the fire.

Some of them could be left to others, at least some of the time.  Others needed to be handled by me personally, either because I was the only one who knew what I was talking about or – worse – because the people I needed to work with refused to work with anyone, but me.  I wanted – I needed – to create a staff that could handle the day-to-day jobs, yet my subordinates were commoners and they couldn’t tell aristocrats what to do.  There was no way, too, I could get aristos to help me.  They’d be more trouble than they were worth.

I gritted my teeth as I stared over the makeshift training ground, Princess Helen standing beside me and watching as the royal troops went through the exercise.  It was a mess.  The troops were good at looking good, like the British troops who spent half their time guarding Buckingham Palace, but unlike the Brits these guys didn’t spend the rest of their time on the battlefield or honing their skills on the exercise field.  Sure, they could march in line and perform ceremonial duties with the best of them, yet one unscripted exercise and they went completely to pieces.  I had a mental list of officers I intended to remove, or reassign to somewhere well out of the way or even promote upwards into a harmless office job.  And yet, doing it was damn near impossible.

Perhaps I could arrange for them to be kidnapped and sold to the warlords, I thought, crossly.  I’d once read a book where officers had been replaced by NCOs and unit efficiency had doubled.  Here, I was pretty sure it would be literally true if I tried.  It could hardly make things worse.

I rubbed my forehead.  It hadn’t been easy, sweeping up new recruits.  I’d had to offer high enlistment bounties and even that had been unproductive.  There were just too many people who saw the military as a pool of losers, rapists, thieves and murderers.  I’d had the same problem in Damansara and it hadn’t gone away until I’d produced my first battlefield victory.  The raw material was there, but getting it into service was a pain the ass.  It didn’t help that half the aristocracy still saw war as a contest of champions and the other half feared what would happen if the commoners got their hands on weapons.  I supposed the latter had a point.  My last army had grown a hell of a lot more assertive pretty damn quickly.

And good for them, I thought, as my eyes swept the training ground.  The more they can stand up for themselves, the harder the aristos will find it to put them back in their box.

The training ground was bustling with life.  My men – old and new – were working their way through a series of exercises, designed to both teach lessons and – hopefully – isolate prospective officer candidates.  A number of women, aristo and commoner, were watching the display, while working on their medical training.  The turnover was high, I’d been told, but we were getting some good candidates.  It had actually been quite helpful that some dimwit in the aristocracy had insisted women couldn’t do medicine because they would faint the moment they saw blood.  Word had spread rapidly and a great many women who might have done nothing had taken up the cause, just to prove the ignorant idiot wrong.  I just hoped they’d stick with it when they realised it was going to get nasty very quickly, when the cannonballs started firing.

As long as the knowledge spreads, it is likely to make things better, I thought, as I watched a row of men crawling towards their targets.  The aristocrats would call them cowards, I was sure, but standing up and walking into enemy fire was a good way to commit suicide.  I wanted my men to live and learn, not die to satisfy an idiot’s ego.  It was bad enough that half the lessons I was teaching them would be proven wrong, when the guns started booming.  They need to learn to think for themselves.

Princess Helen glanced at me.  “The new recruits seem to be doing better than expected.”

I shrugged.  I’d been careful not to overpromise.  Doing more than what one promised was an important part of counterinsurgency, as opposed to making promises that were then – deliberately or not – broken, leaving disillusionment in their wake.  Princess Helen might be pleased if I promised a thousand men and trained two thousand, but I hated to think what she’d say if I promised twice what I delivered.  I sighed as I spotted Sir Essex and Lord General Suffolk, watching the scene with expressions that suggested they’d smelt something disgusting.  They could fuck up time and time again and remain aristocracy.  Me?  One fuck up would be the end.  I’d taken a few precautions – I’d concealed money and weapons in places I could find them in a hurry if I had to go on the run – but a fall from grace might lead rapidly and inevitably to my execution.  I’d put too many noses out of joint.

“There are no such things as bad men,” I quoted.  “Just bad leaders.”

The princess smiled.  “Very wise, Sir Elliot.”

I smiled back.  It wasn’t as if anyone here had ever heard of Napoleon, let alone his more famous quotes.  He’d been right too.  A good leader, backed up by a good officer corps and supply system, could lead his men to glory.  A bad one, a fool or coward or worse who lacked the respect of his troops, was a recipe for disaster.  I’d had officers in the past who’d forced me to consider my escape routes, just because I didn’t trust their military acumen or their willingness to stand up for the men under their command.  Perhaps it had been wrong of me, but respect was a two-way street.  You had to serve your people if you expected them to serve you.

Something else to blame on modern communications and the media, I reflected, sourly.  A lie can go around the world before the truth has even got its boots on and, by the time the truth arrives, the damage is already done.

“The new recruits have less to unlearn,” I explained, seriously.  “They are starting from scratch.  The raw material is good.  The only real problem is making sure they don’t pick up bad habits.  If they do, they’ll have to be purged and we’ll have to start again.”

I noticed Sir Essex motioning to his men and sighed.  The Master of Horse – the effective commander of the king’s cavalry regiments – was no coward.  I’d seen him on the jousting field and even I had to admit he was brave and skilled, running the very real risk of death or worse when he charged his opponent.  But he’d picked up the same bad habits as Harbin Gallery and Clarence Aldred, Warlord Aldred’s dead son.  A charge into the teeth of enemy cannons would accomplish nothing, beyond getting a lot of cavalry killed.  I’d seen it happen.  I’d told him, time and time again, that it had happened before and would happen again.  And yet, he’d nodded and smiled and made it clear, in body language if nothing else, that he didn’t believe a word of it. 

And we can’t get rid of him unless he gets himself killed, I thought.  I’d already shot one idiot in the back.  Why not a second?  I’d have to be very careful – I’d killed Harbin on the battlefield, where the evidence had been destroyed within seconds and he could be hailed a hero now he was dead – but it might be harder here.  Perhaps I can frame him for something instead.

The thought made me smile as the day wore on.  Violet had been a goldmine of useful information, once she’d realised I had no intention of using and abusing and then discarding her.  It was astonishing how much the street kids saw, although there was little they could do with it.  Blackmail wasn’t so easy here, not when the only people worth blackmailing didn’t have to worry about the law or the judgement of society.  Sir Essex could spend half his time in a lower-class brothel with lower-class women – or men – and no one would do anything more than shake their finger disapprovingly.  Hell, I was pretty sure he spent half his time cutting a swath through the ranks of adoring aristocratic women.  He had the attitude down pat.  And if a suspicious husband caught him in bed with his wife, he’d take it out on the poor women and let the man go.  It was that sort of society.

“There have been some rumblings along the border,” Princess Helen told me.  “The warlords might be planning something.”

I winced.  My attempts to set up spy networks had not been as successful as I’d hoped.  It was the age-old problem.  The locals might think you were better than their former tormentors – true back home, less so here – but they wouldn’t go out on a limb for you unless they were sure you weren’t going to abandon them to the tender mercies of their enemies.  It was easy to feel frustrated at locals who did nothing, or sided with the bad guys, yet who could blame them when you left them in the shit?  The warlords were nasty.  They could give lessons in sheer unrelenting brutality to Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Communist China and Islamic State.  And the king had even less credibility as the protector of his people than we’d had when the war on terror had begun.

“I think …”

I stopped as I heard shouting, coming from the edge of one of the training fields.  My heart sank as I hurried forward, only dimly aware of the princess following me.  Sir Essex had gone over there, hadn’t he?  He’d been taking part in an exercise … I cursed under my breath as I hurried into the field, looking around at the trenches and half-ruined mock houses we’d thrown together to teach the men their skills.  It had been perversely easy, with a bit of help from the magicians, to create a proper training field, with fake guns that projected spells rather than bullets.  There was no way for anyone, I’d thought, to dispute with the umpires and insist they hadn’t been hit.  I was starting to fear I was wrong.

My pace slowed as the scene came into view.  Sir Essex was bellowing at a junior officer, a bastard son who’d been sent into the army to get rid of him.  His father had bought him an infantry commission, or so I’d heard, and then washed his hands of his unwanted child.  I didn’t pretend to understand how he was both aristo and commoner, or how he was both a cut above the commoners and well below the aristocracy.  I’d only cared about his military skills and, in that, he’d shown promise.  It was strange to find an aristocrat in the infantry, certainly in the lower ranks.  I gave him credit for that, if nothing else.

“… Worthless pig-headed bastard son of a …”

I raised my voice, cutting off Sir Essex before he started something he couldn’t finish.  The junior officer – his name was Wilhelm, if I recalled correctly – was looking like someone who was starting to think he had nothing to lose.  There was only so long one could berate one’s social inferior before he snapped, drew his sword and tried to kill you.  Sir Essex was too stupid or too arrogant to realise it.  The nasty part of my mind was tempted to let it happen, but Wilhelm would be executed if he succeeded.  I had other plans for him.

“And what,” I asked, “is the meaning of this?”

Wilhelm glanced at us, his eyebrows shooting up as he saw the princess behind me.  Sir Essex looked, just for a second, like a deer caught in the headlights before starting to double down.  I’d seen it before, people who realised they’d crossed the line and yet thought if they pressed on everyone else would ignore it.  It might have worked, for him.  Sure, he was swearing like a sailor in front of the princess, but he was still a powerful aristocrat.  There were limits to what society could do to him.

“This … this person disobeyed orders,” Sir Essex thundered.  “And he stole my glory.”

I tried not to roll my eyes in disgust.  I hadn’t joined the military for glory.  “What happened?”

Sir Essex spluttered, as if he’d expected his word alone to be enough to convict Wilhelm of everything from disobeying orders to Bearing An Unsympathetic Facial Aspect In The Presence Of A Superior Officer.  I felt a flicker of dark amusement.  In my experience, anyone who couldn’t put together a rational explanation of just about anything didn’t have a case, knew he didn’t have a case, and was resorting to shouting and threats in hope of covering it up.  And anyone who tried to force you to rush to judgement was invariably not your friend.

“I told him to hold position,” Sir Essex said, waving a hand at the mock battlefield.  The men had hurried off, probably without orders.  No one wanted to be caught up in the chaos when the boss was throwing shit everywhere.  “And he attacked the enemy!”

“I saw an opportunity,” Wilhelm said, when I looked at him.  “And I won!”

“I told you to stay where you were and let the cavalry handle it,” Sir Essex snapped.  “We should have thrown them off the battlefield.”

“You would have been killed,” Wilhelm predicted.  “Wiped out!”

I cleared my throat.  “One at a time,” I ordered.  “Wilhelm, you first.”

Sir Essex sputtered, but had the sense to remain quiet.  I listened, carefully, as the story came together.  Sir Essex had ordered Wilhelm and his men to hold the line, to keep the enemy from advancing while the cavalry readied themselves for a charge.  The battle had been surprisingly fluid, given the limited tech and even more limited weapons, and Wilhelm had seen an opportunity to get the enemy before the enemy got them.  He’d ordered his men to fix baronets, then led a quick charge that had taken the enemy by surprise and overrun their positions before they could do much of anything about it.  I was quietly impressed.  We’d joked, back home, about commanders who’d won battles by ignoring every order their superiors gave them, but I’d never really seen it happen.  There might have been times when an order had to be reinterpreted so it could be carried out, yet actual disobedience …

“The idea was to win,” I told them both.  “It does not matter who gets the credit for the attack, but which side comes out ahead.”

Sir Essex started to splutter again.  I groaned, inwardly.  There were some officers who’d be more annoyed their orders had been ignored than anything else, even though it was the perfect opportunity to claim the credit.  A smarter man might have stolen at least some of the credit, or won a medal for putting the right man in the right place, but Sir Essex was more pissed his subordinate had won the battle for him than anything else.  Idiot.  The perfect opportunity to take the credit, and pass the blame down the ladder if things had gone the other way, and he’d missed it.

“Your Highness.”  Sir Essex glanced at Princess Helen.  “Surely, you are not going to allow this to stand?”

I spoke quickly, to give the princess time to consider all the political implications.  “The battlefield is a very fluid place,” I said.  The pre-firearms era had been one of sieges, when magic wasn’t involved.  I’d studied a number of campaign histories and most of them had agreed the combatants had done their best to avoid pitched battles.  The cavalry might dramatically thunder around the field, in hopes of smashing or scattering enemy troops, but they were rarely as effective as their leaders thought.  “There will always be opportunities that come and go, granted fleetingly by the gods themselves.  Wilhelm took advantage of one and won the battle.”

Wilhelm looked pleased.  I pressed on.

“You deserve credit for putting Wilhelm in precisely the right spot at the right time,” I said, applying – thankfully, only metaphorically  – my tongue to his ass.  It galled me to flatter him so thoroughly, to cover him in praise he’d done little to earn, but if it kept him from causing trouble I’d put up with it.  “Your thinking was extremely good.  It is a rare officer who can spot talent and arrange for it to be showcased, so it can be promoted.  Wilhelm owes his coming promotion to you.”

I laid it on with a trowel.  But Sir Essex didn’t seem impressed.  “I gave him orders,” he snapped.  “And he disobeyed them!  This bastard son of a …”

“That will do,” Princess Helen said.  “We are at war.  We do not have time to waste fighting each other, when we have to fight the enemy.”

Sir Essex bristled.  I tensed.  If he drew his sword, if he even started, I’d shoot him and to hell with the consequences.  I couldn’t let him take a swing at anyone, not even me.  If he cut the princess down …

“The council will hear of this,” Sir Essex snapped, turning away.  “And your father will hear of it too.”

I would have laughed – it was pathetic – if it hadn’t been so deadly.  Sir Essex could cause real trouble, if his father or someone else didn’t manage to calm him down.  And who knew what would happen then?

As it happened, it didn’t take me long to find out.

Her Majesty’s Warlord CH11

17 Nov

Chapter Eleven

“So … you’re saying I own the factory?”

I took a breath, trying to hide my irritation.  Lord Rollins was not an idiot – I kept telling myself that – but he had extreme trouble coming to grips with ideas that were even slightly outside his context.  He’d already reached and passed his boggle point and his thoughts were spinning helplessly, unable to come to terms with the concept in front of him.  And I was tempted – very tempted – to walk away.

“Not quite, My Lord,” I said.  I hated even pretending to grovel to him – and Lord Rollins wasn’t even the worst of the bunch, when it came to absurd titles and even more absurd honorifics – but I needed his cooperation.  “You own a share of the factory and so you get a share of the profits.”

Lord Rollins looked unconvinced.  Aristocrats did not dirty their hands with trade.  They treated the mere thought of actually working for a living with the sort of horror we might regard someone who put his hands in the toilet, then didn’t bother to wash before going about his business.  It explained, I had come to realise, why so many aristocrats were practically penniless, even though they owned vast estates.  They could neither convert their possessions into profitable enterprises nor, because they had to stay in the family, get rid of them.  I was tempted to ask if His Lordship had ever considered burning down the estate, then claiming the insurance.  But then, insurance wasn’t really a thing on this world.  I made a mental note to look into it when I had the time.

I took a breath and went through the whole explanation again.  It was a legal fiction.  Lord Rollins was not engaging in trade – perish the thought – but paying someone else to do it for him.  I wasn’t sure of the difference – there was no difference between killing someone yourself and hiring a hitman to do your dirty work – yet it didn’t really matter, as long as local mores were observed.  Better they do it crudely, I reminded myself, then you do it perfectly.  I needed the concept of stocks and shares to really catch on.

“Very well,” Lord Rollins said.  “If His Majesty is backing the affair, I shall do so too.”

“Thank you, My Lord,” I said.  “You won’t regret it.”

We exchanged polite formalities neither of us really believed, before I was shown out of the mansion.  I didn’t really need Lord Rollins to fund the first major factories, which would eventually produce everything from looms and printing presses to farming tools, rifles and cannons, but it would keep the local aristocracy invested when they discovered how much was going to change because of me.  The local farms were primitive, by even 1800s standards.  I’d been told men and women worked the grounds with hand-powered tools, rather than ploughs or anything more advanced.  Once that changed, and it would, who knew what would happen?  There was a certain kind of mentality that took more pleasure from keeping workers under their thumb than making them more productive

And the local aristocracy draws status from how many people they have under them, I reflected.  The idea of downsizing is unthinkable to them.

I had to smile as I made my way down the street.  Lord Rollins had been shocked when I’d arrived alone, rather than escorted by a bunch of guards and servants.  I was a great nobleman … sure, one who owed his position to the princess rather than a linage stretching back to pre-Adamite days, but a nobleman none the less.  For me to walk around alone, as if I were nothing more than a commoner … I rolled my eyes.  Conspicuous consumption had never struck me as anything other than a giant waste of money, particularly when one didn’t have the money to spend.  If Lord Rollins stopped wasting his limited income on servants, fancy clothes, gladiatorial tournaments and everything else, he would have one hell of a lot more cash in hand.  And it wouldn’t really diminish his status.

The thought mocked me as I passed a pair of upper-class women, who curtsied to me.  Lord Rollins could trace his family back a long way, to the point very little could deprive him of his nobility.  Me?  The women respecting me one moment would disrespect me the next, if I fucked up or the princess simply got tired of me.  I saw an invitation in one of the women’s eyes and was almost tempted, before putting the thought firmly out of my mind.  I didn’t need trouble with a jealous husband, as well as everything else.  I already had quite enough problems.

I kept walking, my mind elsewhere.  I’d spent the last two weeks laying the groundwork for proper businesses.  I’d had craftsmen put together printing presses, then used them to found newspapers … some overtly mine, some not.  I’d devised plans for factories, after which I’d worked out how to pay for them and set out to recruit investors. And I’d arranged for copies of my notes to be printed, then distributed.  I might die tomorrow – it was quite possible – but what I’d started would be harder to destroy.  The more aristocrats who invested in my creations, and those put together by my rivals, the harder it would be for anyone to put the brakes on, let alone stop progress completely. 

And then you have to go back to the training field, I reminded myself.  The warlords had been quiet, but that wasn’t going to last.  We need to prepare for war.

The cacophony of the market surrounded me as I crossed the bridge into the middle-class district.  I glanced at the stalls, spotting a handful of books from faraway lands – and others I was fairly sure had been made up of whole cloth – as well as a couple of new devices someone had imported at great expense.  I’d have to take a look at them later, to see if they could be reverse-engineered and then put into mass production.  It wasn’t always easy.  A piece of simple craftsmanship could be easy to take apart, but if someone worked magic into the device …

I tensed as I felt a hand, crawling into my pocket.  Someone was trying to rob me!

My hand snapped down, grabbing the intruder without giving him a hint of warning.  I’d seen pickpockets back in Damansara, young boys and girls who sidled up to their target and quickly, very quickly, snatched what they wanted and vanished into the crowd.  They were very good at reading people, I’d been told.  They knew who to avoid, if they didn’t have a mob waiting to rain stones on anyone who gave chance.  I heard a gasp as my grip tightened, my would-be pickpocket trying hard not to cry out.  I glanced down.  A young boy was right next to me.  If I hadn’t felt his hand in my pocket, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it.

“Walk alongside me,” I growled, putting as much threat as I could into my voice.  “If you try to get away, I’ll break your fucking neck.”

The boy tensed.  I kept a wary eye on him as I steered our way towards the nearest alley.  He looked young, perhaps no older than twelve, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be dangerous.  A small boy with a dagger could kill a grown man, if the man wasn’t sharp enough to realise he was under attack and quick enough to do something about it.  If he did something – anything – to suggest he was going to stab me, I’d snap his wrist and to hell with the consequences.   They would probably be fatal for him, if not for me.  Who gave a damn about the street kids?  Not the aristocracy, that was for sure.  If the boy had tried to steal from Lord Rollins, he’d have been kicked to death by now.

My heart sank.  I’d caught a thief back in Damansara, a young lad who’d nicked something from a stall.  It hadn’t dawned on me until it had been far too late that the boy wasn’t going to be sent to juvie, or get flogged, or something slightly more proportionate to the crime.  He’d had his right hand cut off, a de facto death sentence for someone living on the streets.  There was no social safety net, not even in a city.  I didn’t know what had happened to him, after he’d been kicked out of the guardhouse, but I feared the worst.  And it had been my fault.

I shoved the pickpocket into the wall as the alleyway emptied, the other denizens taking one look at us and deciding they didn’t want to know.  I didn’t blame them.  My clothes were fine enough to mark me as a very wealthy man, if not an aristocrat in my own right.  If I decided to beat a street rat to death, who was going to try to stop me?  I felt sick as I looked the boy up and down.  The boy … no, the girl.  She was good at hiding it, but I was sure.  I’d grown up in a place where women wearing traditionally male clothing was hardly shocking.  Hell, I’d seen girls in boyish clothes in Afghanistan, trying to earn a living to keep their families alive.  The only other options were starvation or prostitution.  Who could blame them?

“You tried to steal from me,” I snapped, keeping my eyes on hers.  Her clothes were baggy enough to hide a handful of weapons, which could be deadly if she had a chance to draw and use them.  Killing an aristocrat would mean certain death – every guard and retainer in the city would be after her – but if she thought I was going to kill her, or worse, what did she have to lose?  “Why?”

The girl twisted, her mind clearly racing to come up with an excuse.  I’d caught her with her hand in my pocket.  I wondered, idly, if she’d try to claim it was an accident.  I might have believed her if she’d bumped into me, but putting her hand in my pocket?  Not a chance.  No one would have blamed me if I’d marched her to the guardhouse, or simply killed her myself.  The only good news was that she was probably alone.  Sure, she might have friends on the streets, but it was unlikely.  If they knew what she was, they’d sell her into a fate worse than death.

“My grandmother is dying, My Lord,” she managed finally.  “I need money to buy medicine for her.  I’ll do anything.”

“I really wouldn’t say that too loudly, if I were you,” I commented.  The story sounded true, if only because the average nobleman wouldn’t give a damn about a street rat’s grandmother, but the girl might well be a practiced liar.  “Why did you try to rob me?”

She dropped her eyes.  “My Lord, I …”

“Why?”  I kept my voice calm, despite my irritation.  I didn’t like people stealing from me.  I might have money to spare – now – but still!  And she might easily have picked on someone who didn’t.  What if she’d tried to steal from someone who had to count the pennies and didn’t have the money for even a single cup of coffee?  “Why me?”

The girl hesitated, then took the plunge.  “Because you were alone, My Lord,” she confessed, finally.  “I thought … if you were alone, you might not want to report me.”

“Because I might be up to something I shouldn’t be?”  I had to smile at the girl’s perception, although it was hard to imagine anything an aristo might be doing that he wouldn’t want to get out.  Very little was forbidden to one of their station and what little there was couldn’t be found in the market.  “Good thinking, I suppose, but a trifle limited.”

The girl managed a weak smile.  “Please, My Lord …”

I said nothing, my mind racing.  The girl was caught in a trap.  I had no idea if her story about a sick grandmother was actually true, but it didn’t matter.  Back home, there were plenty of options for youngsters who didn’t want to spend their lives on the streets.  They could join the military, get a job – I’d held a couple of semi-legal jobs myself, before I’d joined the army – or do quite a few other things that didn’t rely on crime.  Here … the girl had no choice, but to either embark on a life of crime or sell herself.  I felt sick.  No matter how hard I worked, it was unlikely I could make things better for everyone.  Half the problems that were so obvious to me were just the way things were, as far as the locals were concerned.  Hell, the aristocracy believed – quite firmly – the poor were poor because they deserved to be poor.  It was how the gods had made the world.

“I could let you go, I suppose,” I told her.  The locals would say I was soft, of that I had no doubt, but I felt too sorry for her to hand her over to the guards.  I wasn’t going to do that again.  “You could spend the rest of your life on the streets, a life that will be nasty, brutish, and very short.  Or you could work for me.”

The girl looked wary.  I understood, mentally kicking myself for my choice of words.  She had to assume the worst …

“What …”  She swallowed and started again.  “What would you want from me?”

“You know the city, right?”  I wasn’t quite sure myself.  I was making it up as I went along.  “I need an assistant, someone familiar with the city, someone who can go places I can’t … someone who might be able to take messages around without being spotted.  I can pay and feed you” – if the girl wasn’t malnourished, I was a blithering idiot – “and even give you a room, a private room, where you can sleep.  And your grandmother, if she really exists.  I can make sure she has the very best of medical care.”

The girl looked from side to side, obviously torn.  I understood.  It was a very tempting offer – if she became one of my retainers, she would instantly jump up several rungs on the social ladder – but she had to wonder if I was trying to lure her into a trap.  And yet, she had to know I didn’t need to bother.  No one would question me, if I dragged her back to the mansion or threw her to the guards.  I could draw my sword and cut her down in the streets and, far from being shocked, the locals would be offering to help remove the body. 

I stepped back, giving her space.  “I’ll be back at the mansion within the hour,” I said, giving her directions.  On impulse, I passed her a messenger ring.  It was the first time I’d actually put one to use.  “If you want to work for me, come before nightfall.  Or stay on the streets, if you wish.  I won’t make the offer twice.”

My back twitched as I turned and walked away.  If she had a knife … nothing happened as I reached the corner and stepped back into the marketplace.  Would she come?  I hadn’t lied to her – I could use someone who knew the seedy underside of the city – but she might fear the worst.  I felt a twinge of guilt as I made my way back to the mansion, mingled with the awareness she needed to make up her own mind.  I’d done everything I could, even to the point of not asking her name.  If she decided not to come …

Sigmund interrupted my planning session, three hours later.  “My Lord,” he said in a tone that suggested he was quietly fuming, “you have a guest.”

I silently blessed my foresight in giving the girl the messenger ring as she was shown into the chamber.  If she hadn’t had it in her possession, Sigmund would probably have ordered her kicked out of the mansion and beaten by the guards on the assumption she was trying to case the joint.  Or something.  The ring glowed faintly in her hand, clear proof I’d given it to her willingly.  Rupert had told me the gems went black if the ring was stolen or even just picked up from the streets.

“Thank you,” I said, calmly.  “Please have a guest chamber prepared, at once.”

I ignored his look of disapproval as I eyed the girl.  “Have you decided to work for me?”

“Yes, My Lord,” the girl said.  Behind her, Sigmund looked pale.  “I … what do we do?”

I smiled.  “What is your name?”

The girl hesitated, then visibly decided to answer honestly.  “Violet, My Lord.”

“Then welcome to my service, Violet,” I said.  I didn’t intend to make her submit a resume, then answer questions that had already been answered on the resume.  That would be cruel, sadistic and completely pointless.  “You can have something to eat, then you can start telling me about the underside of the city.  And” – I paused significantly – “you can bring your grandmother.”

Violet flushed.  “My Lord … she died two years ago.  I’ve been alone ever since.”

I felt another flicker of sympathy.  I’d never known my grandmother.  Either of them.  And yet … if she’d wanted to lie to me, in hopes of getting my sympathy, why tell a lie that wouldn’t gain any sympathy from the vast majority of aristocrats?

“I understand,” I said.  She could tell me, when she wanted.  Until then … I just hoped I hadn’t made a mistake.  The look on Sigmund’s face suggested he thought I’d fucked up as badly as the junior officer who’d accidentally led his unit across the border into East Germany.  “Do not lie to me again.  Is that clear?”

“Yes, My Lord.”

“Good,” I said.  “Now, let us begin.”

My Favourite Alternate History Novels

14 Nov

I went back and forwards on a lot of these titles – there are the ones that got me into alternate history, or inspired my writing, and/or made a major impression on the field.  I don’t pretend they’re the best of the best, but most of them strike a good balance between literature and pulp (with a couple of pure literature books).

YMMV, as always.

The Guns of the South (Harry Turtledove)

Point of Divergence (POD): American Civil War, Confederate Victory

Basic Concept: On the verge of defeat, the Confederate States of America is saved by time-travellers from 20??.  However, the time travellers have dark motives for saving the ‘lost cause’.

The Good: An excellent assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of an infusion of modern tech, plus forcing the CSA to come to grips with what it means to be an independent state (and how their descendents came to view their ‘peculiar institution’ as peculiarly vile.)

The Bad: there has been a lot of debate recently about how easily the CSA abolished slavery in this novel and the treatment of General Lee, who was – historically – a slaveowner himself.

Ruled Britannia (Harry Turtledove)

POD: Spanish Armada, Spanish Victory

Basic Concept: In an occupied England, Will Shakespeare is recruited into a plot to liberate England from the Spanish.

The Good: Very clever depiction of Shakespeare and the other characters.

The Bad: Not really enough action for me, although the intrigue is very well done.

Red Storm Rising (Tom Clancy)

POD: NATO/Warsaw Pact War in 198?

Basic Concept: Desperately short of oil, the USSR starts a war in Europe (it makes sense in context).

The Good: While not ‘pure’ AH, the book is an excellent depiction of a conventional WW3 that avoids many of the major pitfalls.

The Bad:  Could have been spread out over three books with ease.

Island in the Sea of Time (SM Stirling)

POD: Bronze Ages

Basic Concept: The island of Nantucket finds itself back in the Bronze Ages and has to rebuild civilisation from scratch.

The Good: A brilliantly effective depiction of the era, plus excellent assessment of resources available to both the islanders and the locals.

The Bad:  Some of the side-characters are complete idiots. 

The Domination (SM Stirling)

POD: American Revolution – UK takes South Africa early, then turns it into a home for American Loyalists.

Basic Concept:  South Africa, called the Domination of the Draka in this timeline, expands into a major global power, then takes over the world with an army of genetic superhumans.

The Good: Stirling creates a fantastic sense of a very different world, along with advanced technology (the past’s tomorrow) and different tactical problems for his heroes.

The Bad: The timeline is so completely implausible that it cannot be taken seriously.

WorldWar (Harry Turtledove)

POD: World War Two

Basic Concept: Shortly before the historical Battle of Midway, an alien invasion force (with 2000-era weaponry) descends from the skies and invades Earth.

The Good: Turtledove does an excellent paranoiac view of the war, with both human and alien characters, that manages to avoid some clichés (no total human alliance, for example).

The Bad: The storyline could have been condensed a little.

How Few Remain (Harry Turtledove)

POD: American Civil War

Basic Concept: A decade or so after the CSA won its independence, the USA and CSA go to war once again.

The Good: Turtledove does an excellent paranoiac view of the war (like WorldWar) and includes all sorts of historical characters, from Lincoln to Fredrick Douglas and Custer.

The Bad: The book is a sweeping depiction of a world, rather than a focused storyline.  Less noticeable here, but more obvious in the ongoing series following the alternate WW1 and WW2.

Lest Darkness Fall (L. Sprague deCamp)

POD: Late Roman Empire

Basic Concept: A time-traveller from the 1930s is sent back to the Roman Empire.  He sets out to keep the empire from falling and pretty much succeeds.

The Good: One of the first and still one of the best, touching on both realistic technical introductions and the limits faced by people trying to change the world.

The Bad: Not much really – less action than one might like?

Hitler Has Won (Frederic Mullally)

POD: World War Two

Basic Concept: Russia has fallen, the UK is steadily being ground down, the US is isolationist, and, in Nazi Germany, a victorious Hitler’s mania is reaching new heights.

The Good: A very chilling depiction of a post-war Germany in a Nazi Victory Timeline, with the main character being forced to realise just what sort of monster he’d served.

The Bad: The denouncement is difficult to believe even remotely plausible.

1901 (Robert Convey)

POD: Post American-Spanish War

Basic Concept: determined to snatch the Spanish territories captured by the US during the last war, Imperial Germany invades the United States.

The Good: A pretty-much unique scenario and sheer coolness helps override both plausibility and character problems.  Also does some good thinking on the geopolitical effects of a US-Germany War.

The Bad: The plot is very basic and the characters tissue-thin.

The Last Article (Harry Turtledove)

POD: World War Two

Basic Concept: Having invaded Britain, the Germans have reached and occupied India, bringing them into conflict with Indian Nationalists such as Nehru and Gandhi.

The Good: A terrifying depiction of what happens when ‘peaceful non-compliance’ based on idealism rather than reality meets an enemy lacking in anything resembling a conscience.

The Bad: Not much.  Technically, a short story rather than a novel; could be expended without too much trouble.

Ring of Fire (Eric Flint, David Weber, various others)

POD: Thirty Years War

Basic Concept: Grantville, an American mining town, is sent back in time to 1632, where they start the American Revolution a hundred years plus early.

The Good: A very good look at the impact of American ideals and technology, as well as character development and constantly-expanding butterflies.

The Bad: Some books and threadlines are more interesting than others. 

Invasion (Kenneth Macksey)

POD: World War Two

Basic Concept: a fictional campaign history of Operation Sealion, the unmentionable sea mammal, where Nazi Germany really does try to invade England.

The Good: Kenneth Macksey does a very good job of making it plausible.

The Bad: The above is hotly debated.  The Germans get a lot of luck and get a lot of things right which, historically, they might not have done.

For Want of a Nail (Robert Sobel)

POD: American Revolution

Basic Concept: A fictional history book of a world where Britain defeated the rebels during the American Revolution and die-hard rebels headed west to build their own country, eventually splitting the continent in two as global affairs started to impinge upon the alternate Americas.

The Good: Very good, very detailed, very interesting if somewhat dry.

The Bad: Quite a few moments push plausibility to breaking point, ranging from a semi-easy solution to race relations to a corporation with the power and influence of a major global power.

Potential Future SIM Books

5 Nov

I’ve been doing a little brainstorming (too ill to write properly) and listed the planned next set of Emily-POV books.  Nothing is finalised yet, of course, but what do you think?

-The Demon’s Design (The last of the old DemonMasters or the first of the new?)

-Wolf in the Fold (classified)

-The Promised Land (on the far side of the Blighted Lands, an ancient evil is uncovered)

-The Apprentice Master (Emily takes an apprentice)

-Devil-Land (a king claims he can make necromancy work)

-The Man Behind The Curtain (classified)

-The Hierarchy of Fools (with magic spilling out of control, dark forces come to intervene)

-Beyond the Sunset (what’s on the other side of the world?)